Thursday, February 15, 2001
The best souvenirs are those that transport you back to a place. T-shirts and mouse ears get stuffed into the back of the closet, snow globes chunked into a box in the attic.
But recipes can bring alive the actual experience time and time again - and allow you to share it with others.
Here in the middle of winter, I can't stop thinking back to a blue-sky week I spent in the south of France last fall. And that sends me straight to the kitchen to cook up some sunny flavors of Provence.
After spending a week in cooking classes in Julia Child's old cottage near Grasse, I have a dozen or more recipes to choose from. Kathie Alex, who apprenticed in Roger Verge's Le Moulin de Mougins, guided me and seven other students through caramelizing apples for tarte tatin, dunking celery and sage leaves in an eggy batter for fritters and stuffing leg of lamb with a robust black olive tapenade for a roast.
Since I've been home, I've found occasion to cook up a taste of France more than once, and a favorite dinner party menu has emerged.
It begins with smoked salmon butter. This was a signature appetizer of Simone Beck, or Simca as she was known. She was a co-author, with Child and Louisette Bertholle, of ``Mastering the Art of French Cooking'' (Random House, 1961) - the book that launched Child's career. And it was on her estate, La Bramafam, that the Childs built a cottage.
Beck loved this appetizer because it is simple, can be made ahead and frozen and is delicious. She actually preferred using canned salmon; but Alex, who was an assistant to Beck, suggested fresh poached. She cuts the thin ends off salmon fillets and saves them (in the freezer) until she has enough to make the salmon butter.
Made of smoked salmon, butter and herbs, the spread can be served from a ramekin or smeared on small toasts or crackers as canapes. Offer this with wine as guests arrive.
Then sit down to a table set with bold colors. I like blue and yellow Fiestaware on a red tablecloth with a centerpiece of sunflowers. Warm brie salad with mustardy walnut vinaigrette is the first course. Perched atop the dressed greens on each plate is a rectangle of brie oozing from an envelope of crispy fried phyllo.
Alex's cooking classes featured many tempting entrees, from a roasted sea bass with crawfish to a rack of lamb with lavender honey. But chicken, Nice style, has become my favorite for entertaining, in part because it's affordable for a dinner party of eight.
The cuisine of Provence has many influences from Mediterranean neighbors and those across the sea in North Africa, Alex explained. Thus olives, saffron, coriander and preserved lemons all worktogether in this dish named for the famous Riviera city. It's warm and complex and exotic. A different flavor can emerge with each bite.
Serve it with risotto ``Simca style,'' which really isn't risotto at all but a rice pilaf cooked mainly in the oven. Green beans sauteed in a fruity olive oil also make a nice side.
Dessert features another lovely flavor of Provence: lavender. Fresh stems of the herb, so abundant in the area because of nearby perfumeries, are steeped in a rich custard, adding flowery grace notes to the traditional creme brulee. (I promise it won't smell like your grandma's cologne.) Then the custard can be cooked in ramekins and finished with broiled brown sugar, as it is often served.