Category Archives: French Food

home cured bacon and frisée aux lardons {charcutepalooza}


It seems as though charcuterie has officially reached an apotheosis- the food world has been incessantly abuzz of late about all things cured, smoked, salted and brined (to the chagrin of some and the delight of others). Although several adventurous food bloggers like Matt Wright and Hank Shaw have been dabbling in meat curing for some time now, things recently reached a fever pitch in the blogging world and on Twitter with the advent of Charcutepalooza, a challenge in which a different type of curing technique is explored each month.

I missed the first challenge, duck prosciutto, but was told that I could “make it up” at a later date (as I write this, the duck is hanging in my basement pantry). The second challenge was something that my friend Kim has been making for a while now, home-cured bacon. I decided to go for it, so I hit up the Bucu family’s stand at Eastern Market and had this gentleman hack me off a 5-lb piece of pork belly.

The cure was simple- just salt, pepper, aromatics and pink (curing) salt, rubbed on the belly and left to work its magic for a week. The belly was then rinsed, patted dry and put in a 200° oven until it reached an internal temp of 150°. This stage was the only “problem” I had with the recipe- it stated to cook for 90 minutes or a temp of 150°, and it took me over 2 hours to reach that temperature, unless my thermometer is really off. But I figured it was better to err on the side of overcooking than undercooking.

As Charcuterie guru Michael Ruhlman suggested in his blog post on bacon, I went ahead and fried up a small piece as soon as it was done (well, after I removed the skin… I’m a pretty die-hard meat lover, but seeing nipples on my bacon was a little freaky). It was saltier than commercial bacon, but I figured that might have been due to it being an end piece.

In the past couple weeks, we have eaten the bacon on its own and incorporated it into several dishes such as Cuban-style black beans and this venison & porcini ragú. Since it’s not smoked, it’s a great stand-in for pancetta. I also made the French bistro classic frisée aux lardons, a salad composed of bitter frisée (a green in the endive family) tossed with vinaigrette, fried cubes of unsmoked bacon (lardons), and topped with a poached egg. There are versions that don’t use the egg, but to my mind it’s the best part, and really makes it a meal. The store Marvin went to didn’t have frisée so we had to use curly endive (possibly the same plant but more mature?), but it was a suitable stand-in. The salad with a glass of Beaujolais and a nibble of Roquefort was a pretty perfect Sunday afternoon lunch.

Frisée aux Lardons
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serves two; recipe can be multiplied to serve more

2 small heads of frisée, washed, cored and torn into pieces
3 Tbs sherry vinegar or good quality red wine vinegar
about 3 oz. unsmoked slab bacon, cut into ½-inch batons
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1-2 Tbs olive oil as needed
2 eggs
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
optional if you have on hand: 1 Tbs minced fresh herbs such as parsley, chervil or chives

Notes: This salad is great with homemade croutons if you’re so inclined. Add them when you toss the salad so they absorb a bit of the dressing. Also, oil & vinegar amounts are a starting point and will vary according to your volume of salad and how lightly or heavily dressed you like things. Please adjust as needed! Last but not least, although I encourage you all to cure your own bacon now that I know how easy it is, you can substitute cut-up strips of regular bacon and have a less traditional but still delicious salad.

Wash and spin-dry the frisée and place in a bowl large enough to toss. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and briefly blanch the lardons; drain. Heat a small skillet and fry the lardons over medium heat until they begin to brown and render some of their fat. Add the shallot and cook until softened. Stir in the vinegar and deglaze any brown bits from the skillet. Remove from heat. Whisk in olive oil to taste until the dressing tastes balanced (this will depend how much fat was rendered from the lardons). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Fill a medium-sized pan halfway with water and bring to a bare simmer. While waiting for the water, toss the salad with the dressing. Taste and tweak as needed with additional oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Distribute onto two plates or shallow bowls.  (A note here for people like myself with ADD tendencies: poached eggs wait for no one, so make sure to have the table, drinks etc. ready when you put the eggs in.) Poach the eggs for four minutes, until the whites are set but the yolks remain runny. Retrieve the eggs with a slotted spoon, gently shaking off as much water as possible. Place an egg on each salad and garnish with the herbs, if using. Serve immediately.

a month of firsts, and an old favorite

I’m sitting in the guest room where Robespierre and Farrow are sequestered, trying to milk the last moments with them before we give them up this week to their new “parents” (due to Marvin’s severe allergies). The house– my new home– is filled with the aroma of chicken roasting on a bed of shallots, herbs and garlic, courtesy of Marvin, who decided to take a turn in the kitchen tonight. Although we signed the paperwork over a month ago, the moving process has been slow, and I was still at the old house this weekend trying to take care of odds and ends and consolidate things to one side in the basement. As of this weekend I’ll have tenants in both flats, and even though I’ve been sleeping here for a couple weeks, that somehow seems to make it official.

Surprisingly, I have been managing to cook a fair amount since the move, I just haven’t had time to photograph or blog about it. We’ve had venison and pork meatballs with pasta sauce from last summer’s tomatoes, a chicken in mustard sauce with goat cheese and leek-stuffed apples, and these Provençale-style mussels that I actually did photograph because it was a paying gig for a recipe column I’ve been writing.

That day we also had our first dinner guest, our friend Jon, who had been helping Marvin move that day. I love all the “firsts” that come not just with moving, but with moving in together- our first night in the new house, first meal cooked on the new stove, first guests, etc. One first that I am particularly eagerly anticipating is the first fire in the fireplace (right now, there are boxes piled in front of it, but I hope to rectify that this weekend). Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I have never shacked up with a significant other, so I was a little anxious about the adjustment, but it seems to be going fairly smoothly so far. (One night at dinner when we did get into a bit of a spat, he gave me a hug afterward and said something like “It’s OK, it wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t have some growing pains”. That’s why I love this man!)

As soon as things are more settled, I really hope to get back into my blogging routine. Going from posting a few times a week to only once or twice a month is seriously bumming me out! Part of it is due to time taken up with some paid writing gigs I’ve gotten lately, which is a good thing, but I miss writing here just for me (and the few of you who visit).   But instead of dwelling on that, can we talk about mussels? I can’t believe I’ve never posted about mussels before, seeing as how they’re one of my favorite quick-but-fancy meals (fancy in terms of being a bit more exotic than my usual weeknight fare, not in terms of difficulty).

This recipe will be old hat for experienced mussel-makers, but I’m hoping to convert a few of you who may have the mistaken assumption that mussels are tricky to make. Au contraire, mon frère– if you can mince shallots and open a bottle of wine, you’re more than halfway there. This article on CHOW is the best one I found to describe the selection, cleaning and storage of mussels for the uninitiated. Personally, I just buy them the day I’m going to use them; the store I buy from (Holiday Market) sells them already cleaned and debearded, so all I have to do is check for any open ones (if they close when you tap them, they’re still alive and you can safely use them). Add a green salad and some bread to soak up the juices and you have a pretty freaking fantastic meal in about 10-15 minutes. Perfect if you’re busy doing other things like, say, unpacking 30 boxes of cookbooks…

Moules à la Provençale (Mussels with Tomatoes and Garlic)
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The following recipe makes enough for two main-dish portions or four appetizer portions. If you want to double the recipe, double the quantity of mussels but only increase the other ingredients by half.

2 lbs. mussels
2-3 large shallots, roughly chopped (about 2/3 c.)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped (about 2 tbs.)
1 bay leaf
4 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 c. dry white wine (I used an inexpensive Vinho Verde, but a Sauvignon Blanc would also work well)
A couple of glugs of olive oil (about 2 tbs.)
Pinch of salt, as needed

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a wide, lidded skillet (alternatively, a Dutch oven or stock pot may be used). Add the shallot and garlic and cook until they just begin to soften. Add the wine and bay leaf and simmer for a couple of minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the parsley. Taste the mixture for salt, adding a pinch or two if needed (may not be necessary if your tomatoes are salted).

When the mixture begins to simmer again, add the cleaned mussels and cover the pan or pot with a lid. You will want to have the rest of your meal ready to go, because the mussels are best eaten as soon as they are cooked. Steam the mussels for about 4 minutes, shaking  the pot occasionally (especially important if your pot is deeper than it is wide and the mussels are stacked on top of each other). Do not overcook or the mussels will become tough.

Spoon the mussels into shallow bowls with some of the cooking liquid and vegetables, then garnish with the reserved parsley. Any mussels that have not opened should be avoided (usually there are only a couple per batch). Serve immediately with crusty bread, a salad and the leftover wine you used for cooking.

when life hands you a tough hen…

…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!

It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries.  Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin.  In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing.  Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.

So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale!  Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get.  They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.

Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection.  She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen.  In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her.  But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.

I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half.  Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong?  I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen?  Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh.  This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding.  However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.

The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene.  As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf.  The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce.  Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce!  I think I was more upset about it than anything.

That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left.  I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so.  It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them.  At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body  and flavor to my sauce.  I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).

I’m still not sure what happened with the meat.  I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled.  If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know!  Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.

P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley.  Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!

youn’s crêpes with ham, egg and cheese (crêpes complètes)

When my friend Youn from Toulouse called me on the eve of an out of town trip asking if he and a friend could come stay for a few days, I said yes even though it was inconvenient, because in my mind I want to be That Kind Of Person- the kind who has an open door policy for weary travelers, who can handle surprise visitors with aplomb, and (most importantly), someone who always has food and drink on hand to whip up an impromptu meal or refreshment for said visitors.

Mind you, this is what I strive for- the reality is somewhat different!  Unlike Marvin, who grew up in a household where people were constantly dropping by, we rarely if ever had unannounced visitors.  So although I wholeheartedly embrace the concept, I have to make a concerted effort to be prepared for this eventuality; it’s not something that comes naturally to me with my more Germanic upbringing.

As it happened, I had purposely NOT gone shopping that week in an effort to use things up before my trip, and the way things worked out, I had no opportunity to go to the store before picking up my guests. Luckily, Marvin came to the rescue in more ways than one- spending some time with them while I was at work, and taking them to the grocery store so that they could make dinner (Youn’s idea). We invited a couple more friends and Youn made traditional Breton buckwheat crêpes (although he has lived in Toulouse for over 20 years, Youn originally hails from Brittany).  My apologies for the somewhat haphazard photos, we were enjoying ourselves and I didn’t feel like stopping to bust out a tripod!  The two decent-looking pics are from breakfast the next day, when the light was much better.

Those of you who read this blog regularly may recall that, coincidentally, I just posted about buckwheat crêpes (galettes) a few weeks ago.  Curiously, the recipe I was using called for apple cider vinegar in the batter, saying it was authentically Breton, but Youn had never heard of it.  Just goes to show that “authentic” is a word that you should take with a grain of salt in the cooking world! He doesn’t even use a recipe, just does everything by feel, but he did give me some measurements so that I could share a recipe. Another interesting thing is that all the recipes I’ve seen call for half buckwheat and half white flour, but he uses all buckwheat which is a bit healthier.  I actually preferred the texture and will be making them this way from now on.  Last but not least, he uses beer in the crêpe batter instead of the usual milk, making the recipe friendly for the lactose-intolerant.  For the vegetarians, there are infinite possibilities for veggie fillings (ratatouille comes to mind).

I like to use up leftovers for crêpe fillings, but obviously there were none, so we made the classic complète– ham, cheese and egg.  The egg is fried right on top of the crêpe.  Add a little grated cheese and some torn-up pieces of ham and you have a meal.  Amanda, who up until this point had claimed a dislike of runny yolk, was converted by the oeuf miroir, so called because the yolk is shiny like a mirror.  In addition to the buckwheat crêpes, Youn also made dessert crêpes with finely-diced apple in the batter, which we spread with confiture de cidre (cider jam) and sprinkled with powdered sugar (check out this post for a dessert crêpe recipe).  We cooked up more crêpes the next morning for breakfast… miam miam!  Next time I hope I’ll be able to spoil my guests instead of the other way around, but I was certainly grateful for the help and the opportunity to get crêpe lessons from a seasoned pro.

Crêpes Complètes à la Youn (Buckwheat Crêpes with Ham, Egg & Cheese)
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Crêpes:
1 lb buckwheat flour
3 eggs
1 cup beer (a lighter lager-style beer is best)
water- about 2 cups or as needed
1-2 Tbs neutral oil or melted butter

Filling:
additional butter for spreading on crêpes (optional)
eggs- one for each crêpe you plan to make
thinly-sliced deli ham
Gruyère or Swiss-style cheese, grated

A couple notes: The directions for cooking up the crêpes may sound a bit fussy, but once you get the feel for it, crêpe-making is one of the easiest things in the world. You’ll learn by trial and error how to adjust things like the batter thickness and pan heat to get the results you want. Best of all, crêpe batter is a relatively inexpensive thing, so it’s not the end of the world to have a few failed attempts before hitting your stride. This recipe makes plenty of batter so you have room to screw up and still have enough for dinner!  Also bear in mind that this “recipe” is very loose.  Feel free to thin the batter with more beer instead of water, or only use 2 eggs, or whatever.  Youn says that in Brittany the crêpe shops make their batter using only flour and water, so obviously it’s very flexible!

Directions:

Place the flour in a bowl.  Make a well in the center of the flour and place the eggs and oil or butter in it.  Gently whisk the eggs with a fork.  Slowly pour the beer and 1 cup water into the well a little at a time as you stir, incorporating the flour, until the batter is fully mixed and has no lumps. (Alternately, whiz everything together in the blender.) Add more water a little at a time as needed until batter is the consistency of heavy cream.  Let batter rest at least an hour.

Get your eggs, ham and cheese at the ready.  Warm your crêpe pan or griddle over medium-high heat until very hot. Smear a bit of butter onto a paper towel and rub it on the pan. Test the heat with a few drops of batter; they should set immediately. Give the batter a couple stirs in case it has started to separate.  Wipe the pan clean with the paper towel wad, and then rub it again with butter. Ladle batter onto the center of the hot pan (quantity will depend on your pan’s size) and quickly rotate the pan so it is thinly and completely covered.  If there is excess batter (i.e. batter that does not instantly set), pour it back into the bowl. Cook until golden brown on the bottom- a minute or so.  You want it to color, but not cook so much that it becomes crispy (although Youn says a little crispiness is OK).  At this point, flip it over.

As soon as you flip the crêpe, you can smear it with butter if desired, then crack an egg onto the center.  With the back of a spoon or a spatula, gently spread the egg white around the crêpe so it can cook.  When the egg white begins to turn opaque, add pieces of the torn-up ham and sprinkle with some shredded cheese.  When the cheese has melted, fold in the sides of the crêpe towards the center so it forms a square, and serve. (With this kind of crêpe, there really isn’t a way to serve everyone at once, but from my experience making them to order creates a casual, convivial atmosphere that is fun in and of itself.)

why i hate cookbooks.

“Why I hate cookbooks” may seem like an odd blog post title for someone who owns as many cookbooks as I do, and who regularly swoons over them.  But every so often, I have one of those frustrating cooking experiences that make me almost angry at the cookbook author for whatever flaw in their recipe that caused the demise of my dinner.

a half-baked chicken recipe

The primary problem with cookbooks is obviously that they’re not interactive.  Have a question or need something clarified? You’re outta luck.*  Unlike blogs, where you can usually get a question on a recipe answered via the comments or an email, cookbooks are static and unyielding, leaving many home cooks up in the air and having to guess at what was intended.

Part of this has to do with the fact that many cookbooks assume a level of knowledge or background that may or may not be there.  Many foodies probably scoff at cookbook authors such as Nigella Lawson, who is not a “real chef” but just a home cook like (most of) the rest of us.  But that’s exactly the thing I love about Nigella’s cookbooks (and blogs like the Amateur Gourmet)- they bother to describe mishaps or trouble spots they experienced while making the dish, in hopes of sparing you the same problems.  Details like “don’t worry if your dough appears clumpy” can be invaluable when making a recipe for the first time. (I try to include these types of details in the recipes I give here- it makes them longer, but I’d rather give too much info than not enough!)

rillettes rejects

Another pet peeve is cookbook authors who don’t seem to test their recipes with American ingredients, even though the U. S. is the primary market for their book sales (they should take a page from Julia Child- she specifically tested her French recipes in an American kitchen with American ingredients, to make sure they would work).  I frequently encounter this problem when cooking from ethnic cookbooks whose authors live abroad.  There are big differences in ingredients such as flour or even meat, and adjustments need to be made.  The person executing the recipe should not be expected to know to make these modifications.

you deserve to look at something prettier than my failed recipes…

So, what prompted this bout of cookbook disaffection?  Spending an entire afternoon and evening in the kitchen one Sunday, and having two different dishes not turn out as expected. The dishes attempted were pork rillettes (from Charcuterie) and a baked chicken and freekeh dish (from the The New Book of Middle Eastern Food). The rillettes, made with expensive pastured pork, turned out the consistency of chewed tuna fish. Note to self: next time, do NOT use the stand mixer as suggested in the book!  Next time I’ll use a fork to gently break apart the meat.  Another issue was that there was not even a ballpark indication of how much liquid to add, and I think I added too much, which also contributed to the “wet tuna” consistency.

pork that reminds you of tuna is just… wrong.

The baked chicken dish was rescued but turned into something completely different from what was intended.  I thought the instructions were a little wonky- boil the chicken for an hour, then cut it up and bake it for 30 minutes- but forged ahead, trusting the recipe. After 1 hour of simmering, however, my chicken was falling apart and unable to be cut up into pieces. What would the additional 30 minutes of baking have done anyway, besides drying out the meat?!  Bizarre. (Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve had an issue with a recipe from this book.)  I ended up picking all of the meat from the carcass, putting it back in the broth with the freekeh,  and just calling it soup.  It tasted fine in the end, but what if I hadn’t been experienced enough to shift gears and transform the dish into something else?

I’ll never fully turn away from cookbooks, but right now, I’m more than a little disenchanted.  My resources (both time and money-wise) are limited, and I can’t afford to devote them to recipes that can’t deliver a reliable result.

6/4/10 UPDATE: I had houseguests from France to whom I hesitantly served the rillettes, explaining that it was my first effort, etc.  They both said that the rillettes were “tout à fait correct” (i.e. just fine), and judging by the quantity they consumed, I don’t think they were just being polite! They said rillettes can range from fine to coarse.  I still think I’ll hand-mix them next time, but it was good to know they weren’t the failure I thought they were. I do think a few weeks in the fridge improved the flavor & texture.

*A couple notable exceptions are Rick Bayless and Paula Wolfert, both of whom are great about answering questions via Twitter!

buckwheat galettes with leeks & ham, and a meeting

Just over a year ago, I was talking to Stéphane at Zen Can Cook via email apropos this post, in which he and fellow bloggers Claire (Colloquial Cooking) and Marc (No Recipes) smoked homemade knackwurst to make the Alsatian classic choucroute garnie from scratch.  In this email I lamented the fact that, although I know lots of folks who like to cook, I didn’t know anyone who was nearly as enthusiastic and dedicated as this, and expressed my envy that he had this crew of people with whom to embark upon these types of challenging cooking “projects”.

Fast-forward one year and I’m happy to report that through the miracle of Twitter, I have stumbled on a group of folks here in Detroit who may well be just as nutty (and I mean that in the best possible way) for DIY food as Stéphane’s  New York pals.  Detroit is really not that big a town, and these are all people who were only one degree of separation away from me in the first place, but Twitter facilitated the discovery that we had these common interests, and got us chatting on a regular basis.

We decided it would behoove our palates to take our Twitter friendships a step further, so this past Friday I got an invitation to attend a “meeting” that evening.  I knew there would be gustatory hedonism involved, but little did I know the extent to which these guys are committed to their food and drink- after getting the tour of our host James‘s house, I felt like a rank amateur!  This is a guy who, in addition to several casks of homemade wine in his basement, has a few choice hunks of pork casually hanging from the rafters to cure, no big deal.

As well as being hardcore food aficionados, these guys are also serious about their beverages:  Todd and Evan co-author the blog Swigs, and Todd brews his own beer and kombucha.  James, in addition to being an all-around connoisseur of wine and spirits, is the coffee roaster at Great Lakes CoffeeJarred is a wine buyer at Western Market in Ferndale (where, incidentally, he is pushing to get more local, healthy and affordable choices on the shelves).

Due to the last-minute nature of this meeting, I just ended up bringing what I’d planned to make for dinner that night: buckwheat galettes (i.e. savory crêpes) with a ham/leek/crème fraîche filling.  I had some extra Swiss chard to use up so I also made a little chard/shallot/ham filling.  I whizzed up the batter in the blender, brought it with the fillings and my crêpe pan, and cooked them sûr place.

I’m already planning ahead for the next get-together so that even if it’s a last-minute affair I can be prepared with something semi-impressive.  Not that anyone is competitive per se; it wasn’t that kind of vibe.  But I actually enjoy feeling an element of challenge and upping the ante- it’s an excuse to try something that goes above and beyond my usual repertoire.  In spite of their humble simplicity, I think my galettes were well-received though.  In fact, I already got a request for the recipe, so let me oblige:

For another take on galettes, see this post, in which my French friend Youn gives his recipe!

Buckwheat Galettes with Ham & Leeks (Galettes Bretonnes au Sarrasin, Jambon & Poireaux)
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For the galettes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
3 eggs
2 cups milk
½ cup apple cider vinegar (see notes)
½ tsp salt
2 Tbs melted butter, cooled
additional butter to grease the pan

For the filling:
3 large leeks
6 oz good quality ham steak, diced small (feel free to substitute lardons or pancetta)
2-3 Tbs heavy cream or crème fraîche
a knob of butter (about 1 Tbs)
a few grinds of nutmeg
salt & pepper to taste

Notes:
If your buckwheat flour is very dark or if you prefer a milder taste, you can use a higher ratio of white flour, such as 1 1/3 cups white & 2/3 cup buckwheat.  Cider vinegar is a traditional Breton twist and will give your galettes a tangy flavor that nicely offsets the ham and cream.  Again, you can play with the proportions, using more or less vinegar (or none at all) according to your taste (if omitting, make up the difference with more milk or water).  For fillings, the sky’s the limit- I often use up whatever bits of meat or veg I have in the fridge to create different fillings (as you can see in the photos, I added some leftover asparagus to these).  Ham and eggs are probably the most popular filling for galettes in France (speaking of eggs, the leek & ham filling is delicious in an omelette if you happen to have any left over).  This is a great make-ahead dish because the batter actually improves as it sits; I love to keep it on hand for quick weeknight dinners.

Directions:
Make the batter: Put the flours and salt in a blender and pulse a few times to combine.  In a bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the milk and butter; with the blender running, pour this mixture into the flour.  Add the vinegar if using (putting the vinegar in separately will keep it from curdling the milk) and pulse until blended, scraping down the sides if necessary.  Check the batter and add more milk, water or vinegar until your batter reaches the consistency of light cream.  Transfer to a bowl and put in the refrigerator to rest, covered, for at least 2 hours.

Make the filling: Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and slice into thin half-circles.  Place in a bowl of cold water, swishing them around to free any dirt.  After the grit settles, lift the leeks gently out of the water and place in a colander to drain.  Melt the butter in a 10 or 12″ skillet over medium heat.  If using lardons or pancetta, fry them for a couple of minutes (use less butter or even skip it) until they render a bit of their fat, then add the leeks.  If using ham, cook the leeks in the butter until soft, then add the ham to warm it through.  When the leeks are cooked, add the cream, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste (I like to use white pepper for this).

Make the galettes:  Warm your crêpe pan or griddle over medium heat until very hot. Smear a bit of butter onto a paper towel and rub it on the pan. Test the heat with a few drops of batter; they should set immediately. Give the batter a couple stirs in case it has started to separate.  Wipe the pan clean with the paper towel wad, and then rub it again with butter. Ladle batter onto the center of the hot pan (quantity will depend on your pan’s size), lifting the pan off the heat a few inches and quickly rotating the pan so it is thinly and completely covered.  If there is excess batter (i.e. batter that does not instantly set), pour it back into the bowl. Cook the galette until lightly browned on the bottom- about 30 to 60 seconds. Peel it off the griddle and flip it to color the other side.  You want it to color, but not cook so much that it becomes crispy. If making several at a time, transfer it to a plate and cover loosely with a tea towel.

If the first galette seems heavy, thin the batter with a little milk or water. Continue to cook the galettes, re-greasing the pan if needed to prevent sticking.  Pile the finished galettes on the plate to keep warm.  When ready to assemble, spread a few generous spoonfuls of hot filling in the center of each galette and fold each side in towards the middle to form a square or rectangular packet (in the photos I did them in omelette shapes to accommodate the asparagus; you can also fold it in quarters for a triangular “cone” shape).  Serve immediately with a simple green salad.

coulda-woulda-shoulda meyer lemon coconut crepes & lemon meringue tarts

Although I’m a busy gal, I try my best to find time to do a little something special for my friends on their birthdays.  My best friend recently turned *ahem* 23, and although I didn’t get to make her a cake or dinner, I offered to have her for brunch and then go shopping.  Everything was rather last-minute, but I managed to throw together a decent little spread with what I had on hand.  However, I felt like a birthday merited something a bit more special than your run-of-the-mill omelette.  Rooting in the fridge, I had a burst of inspiration when I came across some Meyer lemons I’d impulse-purchased the week before- I’d make lemon curd.  But what to pair it with?  She was coming at 11:00 and time was of the essence.  Then it hit me.  Crêpes!  I could throw the batter in the blender and they’d only take seconds to cook up.  The lemon curd would be used to fill the crêpes.

Fabulous idea, but by the time we had eaten our omelettes (and consumed generous amounts of mimosas), we were too full to think about eating anything else.  I figured maybe we’d have the crêpes as a post-shopping snack, but we ran short on time.  Over the next several days I guiltily ate my way through them, feeling bad that my friend had been deprived of her rightful birthday treat.  But even after finishing them off,  I still had a fair amount of lemon curd left over.  The wheels started churning again… lemon curd, plus the egg whites left over from making the curd, plus graham cracker dough in the freezer from this Daring Bakers challenge= lemon meringue tarts!  Better yet, I was meeting up with my friend again that weekend, so I got to deliver her a tart as a belated birthday surprise.  I had enough dough and curd to make three individual tarts, so one went to her, one went to another birthday friend (lots of Aries in my crowd!) and the third was eaten greedily by myself and Marvin.

A few cooking notes: The graham cracker dough worked beautifully as pie crust.  It was slightly challenging to roll out because of the high amount of butter, but I ended up just pressing in into the pans and it was fine.  I actually preferred it as pie crust rather than eating it straight as a graham cracker because it’s so rich.  The lemon curd I had made was too thin to be pie filling as-is, so I just warmed it on the stove, adding a bit of cornstarch (dissolved first in cold water) to thicken it, and it was perfect.  For the crêpes I just smeared it on, throwing in some shredded coconut I had on hand.  I’m not going to print a tart recipe here because I kind of pieced together three different recipes and ad-libbed things, but the graham cracker dough recipe can be found in the aforementioned Daring Bakers post. If you want a recipe for lemon meringue pie, my fellow MLFB pal Mom of Mother’s Kitchen just posted one that looks good.

A lemon tangent: I’m still not convinced Meyer lemons are so superior in cooked dishes such as lemon curd, especially given the price difference, but that’s what I had on hand.  I will say, though, that they seem to yield a higher amount of juice than Eurekas so you can use less of them.  Also, as another update to last year’s lemon post, my preserved lemons turned out great, I still have a supply in the fridge that I’ve been working my way through slowly.  I’m glad I didn’t use Meyers for those as some recipes suggest, because the part you use is the skin, and the skin on Meyer lemons is so thin that you wouldn’t end up with much of anything to use.

Meyer Lemon & Coconut Crêpes (batter recipe paraphrased from Crêpes: Sweet & Savory Recipes for the Home Cook by Lou Seibert Pappas)
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2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/3 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbs sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbs rum, brandy, or other flavored liqueur that pairs well with your filling (optional)
2 Tbs butter, melted, plus 2-3 tsp for coating the pan

To serve:

1 recipe lemon curd (see below)
sweetened shredded and/or toasted coconut, optional
powdered sugar

Put all the crêpe ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth, about 5-10 seconds.  Scrape down the sides if necessary and pulse 1-2 more times. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour (2 is preferable) or up to 24 hours. (Note: I made crêpes from the same batch of batter over the course of several days and they were fine.)

Heat a nonstick crêpe pan* or skillet over medium-high heat.   Gently stir the batter (it likely will have separated).  When hot, lightly butter the pan (the best method I”ve found is to quickly go over the surface with a stick of butter).  Lift the pan a few inches off the burner and pour just enough batter to coat the pan, quickly tilting and rotating it to distribute the batter. The volume of batter will obviously depend on the size of your pan but try to use the least amount possible while still coating the pan.  (This recipe recommends ¼ cup for a 9-10″ pan.)  If there are “holes” around the edges you can dribble a little more batter in those spots with a spoon.  Cook until the crêpe is just set (about 1 minute), then flip and cook until golden- this should only take another 15-30 seconds.  I use my fingers to grab the edge of the crepe and flip it, I find it much easier than trying to use a spatula, but if you’re doing this just be careful not to burn yourself! Set the crêpes aside on a cookie sheet s you go, keeping them covered with a tea towel or piece of foil. When assembling, you want the crêpes to be warm but not so hot that they melt the lemon curd and make it too runny.

Spread a thin layer of lemon curd over half of each crêpe and fold it in half.  Spread another layer of curd, again over half the surface, followed by a sprinkling of coconut if using. Fold in half again. Spread one last bit of curd over half the crêpe and do a final fold, this time bringing the edge of the crêpe only halfway over (see photos). Sprinkle on more coconut and finish with a light dusting of powdered sugar.  (You can obviously put the curd on however you like and it will taste the same, but I like all the layers this creates.)

*I own this crêpe pan and I like it.  I also use it to make omelettes; the low sides make it really easy to flip / roll the omelette.

Meyer Lemon Curd (adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)
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Juice of 4 Meyer lemons
6 Tbs butter
1 whole large egg plus 6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar

Place all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Use a whisk to break up the eggs and moisten the sugar.  Put the pan over medium-low heat and stir constantly until the mixture thickens (Dorie says 4-6 minutes but mine always seem to take longer).  The curd is done when you can run your finger down a spoon or spatula and the curd doesn’t run into the track you’ve created.  Don’t worry if it looks thin, it will firm up as it cools.  Place plastic wrap on the surface of the curd and refrigerate.  The curd will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 months.  Makes about 1 ½ cups.

tarte flambée and memories of alsace

Like many Americans, technically I’m what you might call a “mutt”- like a big pot of stew with lots of bits and bobs, my family tree is peppered with Scottish, English, Native American, French, German and probably a bunch of other genes I’m unaware of.  But, coincidentally, I have Alsatian roots on both my mother’s and father’s side.  My mom’s grandfather’s family, the Steffeses, and my dad’s father’s side, the Lothamers (originally Lotthammer) are both from Alsace and the Black Forest region (on the other side of the Rhine river, which divides Alsace from Germany).   So, given the fact that I have been enamored with French language and culture from an early age, and that I have a French first name and German last name, I have adopted Alsace as my pays and taken to telling people with a wink that I’m alsacienne.

One of my uncles has done pretty extensive genealogical research on the Lotthammer family and has made contact with several families living in Alsace and Germany today that are related to us.  When I was 16, he arranged a trip for me and my best friend to travel to Alsace and stay with some of the families he had made contact with through his research (yes, that’s me in the photo above on the right at age 16… the French got a kick out of my braces!).  We were there for three weeks, and visited the region extensively- from the largest city, Strasbourg, to a tiny village called Guewenheim, and several towns in between (Colmar, Mulhouse, Thann, Belfort…).  The experience was nothing short of transformative for a suburban teenager who until then had barely traveled in the U.S. let alone Europe.

That trip was a huge stepping stone on my path to adventurous eating and cooking.  In Guewenheim, we stayed with a family whose refrigerator was unplugged and used as a pantry, because they ate fresh food every day and had no need to refrigerate anything!  (Any leftover scraps were given to their lucky chien, Zora.)  One of the funniest memories from that trip was going over to the home of an elderly woman in the village for a lesson in making kugelhopf, only to discover that the woman’s Alsatian dialect was totally incomprehensible to our limited third-year French ears.  Let’s just say there was a lot of nodding and smiling going on that afternoon, and that I still don’t know how to make kugelhopf!

It took a while for my budding food curiosity to convert itself into a love for cooking, but some of the first recipes I ever made from a cookbook came from France: The Beautiful Cookbook.  This was a gift from another uncle to our family, and since my parents weren’t the type to cook from a “fancy” French cookbook, the book defaulted into my possession.  I still have a great nostalgia for the hours I spent as a teenager poring over the photos, reading about the different regions of France, and staring longingly at all the strange food depicted between its covers, trying to conjure what it would taste like. Luckily, not all the recipes were out of reach, and I taught myself to make tarte flambée (basically a “pizza” with crème fraîche, bacon and onions) so I could have a little taste of Alsace here in the States.  With crème fraîche being readily available now, along with ready made pizza dough, this is now something that’s totally doable for a weeknight supper, and I’ve found myself making it fairly often of late.  One of these days I’ll make a choucroute garnie, the most famous of Alsace’s regional dishes, but with spring around the corner, I don’t know how many more large heavy dinners will be in the works, so it may have to wait until next winter at this point.  If I get really motivated maybe I’ll even make my own sauerkraut!

P.S. This is a GREAT recipe to adapt to the grill- see this post for instructions on grilling pizza.

Photo note: all of the non-food photos are scans of old photos from my trip.  The top two are in Colmar; the third was taken atop Strasbourg’s cathedral, and the remainder I believe are from Guewenheim (possibly another nearby village).

Tarte Flambée (Alsatian Bacon & Onion Tart)
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1 lb pizza dough, divided in half
1 small tub crème fraîche (you’ll probably use 1/2 to 2/3 cup total)
3 medium yellow onions
6 slices bacon
nutmeg
white or black pepper
flour
optional: shredded Gruyere or Emmenthaler cheese

Notes: This will make two approximately 10″ tarts, depending on how thin you stretch your dough. Each tart serves two as a main course or more as an appetizer, so you can make the second tart right away or save the leftover dough and toppings for a quick and easy after-work meal.  Cheese is not traditional per se, but I had some and wanted to use it up.   If you do use cheese, do so sparingly, otherwise you’ll end up with a pretty greasy tart.  The nutmeg may be non-traditional as well but I love nutmeg with cream, bacon and onions so I always include it.  White pepper vs. black is more a visual thing, if you don’t want black specks on your white food, use the white pepper.

Place a pizza stone in the oven on the center rack and preheat to 475.  OR, make this on the grill.  Remove your dough from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temp while you prep the onions and bacon.

Heat a medium (10″ or 12″) cast iron or aluminum skillet over medium heat.  Cut the bacon into 1/4-” strips (I like to use a kitchen scissors and just snip the bacon right over the pan) and fry to your preferred doneness.  While the bacon is frying, cut your onions.  I like to do thin rings but you can dice it if you prefer.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.  Pour off some of the bacon fat, leaving enough in the pan to fry the onions.  Saute the onions over medium-high heat until soft and golden.


Put a generous amount of flour on a pizza peel or other flat surface such as a cookie sheet with no lip (in a pinch, I have used an upside-down cookie sheet; you just need to be able to slide it off onto the pizza stone).  Take one of your  dough balls and flour it until it is dry to the touch.  Gently stretch the dough, using your fists, flouring as you go to keep it from sticking to your hands or the pizza peel.  I like to get mine as thin as possible, but if you prefer a chewier crust you can adjust accordingly.  Don’t forget that your dough will shrink back a bit, so make it slightly thinner than you think you’ll want it.  When you’re done, place the dough on the peel and shake it, making sure the dough moves freely and is not sticking anywhere.


Working as quickly as possible, spread a thin layer of crème fraîche over the dough, about 1/4 cup or a little more if needed.  Top the tart with half the onions, half the bacon, a few grinds of pepper and nutmeg, and cheese if using.  Slide the tart onto the pizza peel and cook until the crust is golden, 5-10 minutes depending on how thick you stretched the dough. Brush the flour off the peel and use it to serve the tart.

ceci n’est pas un macaron* (daring bakers)

*French for “Giant Macaron Fail!” But I figured the least I could do was pretty them up with a nice seasonal photograph.

macaron fail horizontal

I was so excited about this month’s challenge, really I was.  I’ve been enviously eyeing the beautiful photos of macarons all over people’s blogs for the last little while now, but not having much of a sweet tooth, I needed the Daring Bakers gauntlet to be thrown down to give me the push I needed.  I was a little apprehensive after doing a lot of reading about how difficult and temperamental they can be. But I thought that at the worst, mine might turn out a little flat, or a little browned, but otherwise reasonably resembling a macaron.

Macarons are known for their exotic flavors.  I knew the DB’ers would bring it and that I’d have to be fairly creative to stand out in the crowd.  I rummaged through my cupboards and came up with three flavor ideas: Malted Milk Ball, Ginger Green Tea, and Chai Pumpkin Spice.  Sounds good, right?  The Malted Milk Ball macarons were flavored with cocoa powder and malted milk powder and were going to be filled with a malted milk ganache.  The other two were flavored with powdered dry tea, as per a suggestion from one of the folks in the DB forums.  The Ginger Green Tea flavor was going to be filled with mascarpone with little bits of crystallized ginger, and the Chai Pumpkin Spice was going to be filled with cream cheese blended with pumpkin butter (this combo is really good on an English muffin, BTW.)

Why “going to be filled”, you ask?  Well, all three of my batches of macarons were complete and utter failures.  None of them even came CLOSE to resembling the beautiful macarons on my computer screen. (Did I mention I made THREE batches?  I’m nothing if not persistent! But apparently I had some subconscious need to make good on my “I am not a baker” statement from last month.)  I think I just don’t have that attention to precision and detail (or obsessiveness?) that one needs to attempt a macaron fail 1recipe like this. My macarons were all pathetic, flat, dense little creatures, none of them rose or developed “feet”, nor did any of them have that characteristically shiny shell.  Duncan of Syrup & Tang did a 5-part series on the macaron, which I read diligently (twice!), but it did not unlock any secrets as to why I failed (other than mentioning that the type of recipe chosen by DB had a 50% failure rate).  I have made flourless cake and soufflés before, so I’m familiar with the “folding” technique. I know one batch was definitely overmixed, but with the others I really made an effort to thoroughly combine it without going overboard. (I have to say, though, as I was mixing, I couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t understand how 5 egg whites could possibly hold 2 cups of almond flour & 2 1/4 cups of sugar without collapsing… that’s almost a full pound of solids!)  I thought my last batch (the chocolate ones) actually stood a chance; the batter looked similar to Duncan’s photo of correctly mixed batter and seemed to have the same properties.  But alas, they were just as flat as the rest, if not more so.

I really wish I could have had time to try again and get it right, but I just don’t have the resources (time OR money- that almond meal was $10 a bag!).  I don’t think I’ll ever attempt to make macarons again unless I can get a tutor to come to my house.  Any volunteers?

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S.  She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

ginger green tea cupcakes

P.S. I gave the ginger-green tea flavor a second life as a batch of cupcakes.  I don’t even love cupcakes but I felt I had to redeem myself after the total failure of the macarons!  I took a standard yellow cake recipe, added two teabags of Tazo Ginger Green Tea that had been ground to powder in a coffee mill, and topped them with a lightly sweetened whipped cream/ mascarpone and chopped candied ginger.  I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so these were perfect for my taste- an ever-so-slight bitter edge from the tea and a warm kick from the ginger.

summer’s last hurrah: roasted vegetable ratatouille

ratatouille on plate 3

farmers market tableAll of my food friends have been all atwitter the last couple weeks about pumpkins, apples and other fruits of fall, but I’ve been having a harder time letting go of summer flavors.  It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that the whole summer had gone by and I hadn’t made any ratatouille- how did that happen?!  Luckily the folks at the farmers’ market still had tomatoes, peppers and eggplant [NB: this was 2 weeks ago, on Oct. 3]- I just had to go to the store for squash, but happily it was locally grown too.

I realize this recipe isn’t very timely*, but it takes me a while to get a blog post up these days.   I bought the vegetables and didn’t get to make the ratatouille until the following weekend.  (That’s one of the perks of the farmers’ market though- it’s so fresh that even if it sits around for a week, it’s still probably fresher than what’s at the store.) Tack another week on there to edit photos and write up a post and before you know it, it’s already mid-October! I’m trying to be Zenlike about the fact that I have almost no free time these days, and just make sure to fully take advantage of any little scrap that I do have, but it’s hard not to be a little bummed out.  For example, I really wanted to make the pho recipe for this month’s Daring Cooks, and the date rushed up on me before I could plan it out.  (Sadly, all of my cooking has to be planned with near-military precision these days, or it just can’t fit in…)

ratatouille in potBut on to our ratatouille!  I’ve made ratatouille lots of times and had pretty good results, but this time I was after something specific: I wanted the vegetables to have that melting quality, but to keep their shape and flavor rather than be cooked down into an indistinguishable mush.  The solution?  Roasting.  Not only does roasting help them retain their “integrity”, but you get the additional element of caramelization that you wouldn’t get from cooking them all together on the stove.  Plus, you remove moisture and concentrate the flavor.  My guinea pigs, aka Marvin & Amanda, said they could definitely taste the difference.  I think this one’s a keeper!  I served it with creamy polenta with Parmigiano and some kale that I’d sautéed with olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes.  Along with a green salad, some bread and cheeses, and a couple bottles of red, it was the perfect goodbye-to-summer vegetarian feast.

blackened peppers

*I know this is borderline heretical, but if you’re in need of a summer food fix in the middle of winter, all of the ingredients for this can be found year-round at the grocery store, and I am hard-pressed to tell the difference between squash & eggplant from a greenhouse or from a garden once they’re cooked.  The tomatoes won’t be quite as good, but Romas are fairly dependable, and roasting definitely goes a long way towards improving them.  Or you could always substitute a can of good-quality San Marzanos.

roasted tomatoes 1

Roasted Vegetable Ratatouille
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This is a very loose “recipe” because ultimately I think this is a dish that has a lot of flexibility, and however you prepare it, it’s unlikely to be bad as long as you have good ingredients.  But here’s what I used and how I  went about it; use it as a guideline and go for it!

2 pints Roma tomatoes
3 bell peppers- red, yellow or orange
2 zucchini
2 yellow summer squash
1 eggplant
2-3 onions
3-4 cloves garlic
fresh herbs- I grabbed some marjoram, thyme, and a little rosemary from my garden, although basil is good too
sea salt
olive oil

Wash and pat dry the peppers, and place them in the broiler, turning occasionally and checking on them often, until they’re blackened on all sides.  Place in a paper grocery bag and roll the top shut; set aside.  Reduce oven to 300°.

raw veg on sheets

While the peppers are roasting, cut the squash and eggplant into large-ish chunks (see photos; they’ll shrink a bit as they roast).  Generously salt the eggplant and place in a strainer while you prep everything else.  Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and remove the little stemmy bit; put cut side up on a baking sheet.  Sprinkle with a little salt and brush or drizzle with olive oil.  Cut the onions- I like to do wedge-shaped slices rather than rings.  Mince any herbs you’ll be using.

Place the squash & zucchini in a large bowl, salt lightly, and drizzle with olive oil.  Shake the bowl around so the oil gets distributed all over, then dump it onto a baking sheet.  Put the eggplant on some paper towel and press lightly to remove excess moisture and salt, then toss with olive oil, putting it on a separate baking sheet.  Place all three baking sheets in the oven.

When the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the skins, stems and seeds, and cut into approx 1″ squares; set aside in a bowl.

In a dutch oven or other large heavy pot, heat a generous amount of olive oil (a few Tbs) over medium heat.  Sauté the onions and garlic until the onions begin to soften.  Add any minced herbs you’re using (except basil- add that at the end) and hold, covered, over low heat.

Check on the vegetables in the oven periodically- they’ll be ready at slightly different times.  I kept the tomatoes in about 10 minutes longer than the squash. Ultimately your cooking time will depend on how big you cut everything.  As the eggplant and squash are ready, add them to the pot with the onions and keep warm over low heat.  Add the peppers and any juices that have collected.  When the tomatoes are ready, let them cool enough to handle, and cut each half into quarters, adding to the pot.  Make sure to scrape any of the juice that collects on the cutting board into the pot as well!

Raise the heat slightly (to medium low) and cook the vegetables just until the flavors combine- remember, we’re going for distinguishable pieces rather than stew.  Taste for salt (although you shouldn’t need any, since the vegetables were already salted).  If you’re using basil, cut it into a chiffonade and stir it in at the end.  Serve with polenta or couscous for a vegetarian meal, or as a side dish to roasted chicken or lamb.  Leftovers can be used as filling for an omelette or put it in a baguette with some goat cheese… lots of possibilities with this one!