Wednesday, October 19, 2005

[dedicated to Paul, for the dessert below]

On Friday morning at nine o'clock, I'm to meet La Chef and her six students of the day at Le Metro, a big corner cafe on the Boulevard Voltaire. The night before, I get out my Metro map to plan my route. The easiest way, though not the most direct, requires only one correspondance (change of Metro lines) at a small station on the Right Bank. I try to avoid the big stations--mazes of hot, underground passageways, where multitudes rush to catch their trains. I arrive at Le Metro right on time, and when I come up onto the street, I spy a group of six waiting in front of a large kiosk. They're obviously together, though they seem uncomfortable as a group, so I make my way toward them to introduce myself. Indeed, it is La Chef's group, and they're relieved to have a leader. La Chef hasn't arrived yet, so I explain my role and that she will join us shortly. La Chef lives right in the neighborhood.

The group is American, and as we share our coordinates, it's clear that we represent a broad swath of the continent. Two of the couples are from California, a young pair who live near Irvine, and two lawyers from the San Francisco area. Hailing from the other coast is a businesswoman from Boston, and in the Southwest, a merchandiser who has retired in El Paso. With my midwestern roots, I represent the midcontinent.

Within a few minutes, La Chef arrives. She looks lovely in a safari-style pant suit, ropes of colorful glass beads wound around her neck. She must have rushed out of the apartment this morning, for I notice that one of her pant legs is caught in her stocking. She introduces herself and talks a little about the wealth of weekly outdoor markets in Paris. There are about sixty of them, and today, we're going to the Marche Oberkampf, a Friday morning market.

Our menu will resemble the others: a cheese-tasting course for starters, a curried cauliflower veloute (cream soup), and a salad of fresh mushrooms and roasted beets, followed by a main course of puree de pommes de terre (mashed potatoes) and herb-stuffed tenderloins of pork and veal. For dessert, we'll make an almond-fig tart.

Since La Chef hasn't had time to do her usual day-before shopping, our grocery list is more comprehensive today. We have to buy just about everything, so we stop for ingredients from the market's cheese and dairy, fruit, vegetable, and fresh herb vendors. La Chef knows all her providers, and at the herb stand, we're treated to photos of the vendor's baby daughter. Just two months old, her name is Elisabeth. Then we're off to La Chef's boulanger for baguettes and to the boucherie next door for the veal and pork. The butcher cuts thick scallops for us, slicing pockets into the meat where the herb stuffing will go. Our final stop is at the caviste for wine. After an extended negotiation with La Chef, the caviste suggests a Syrah Cuilleron, a light-bodied red.

I'm becoming familiar with La Chef's routine by now, so when we get back to her apartment, I pour a carafe of water for the students, unpack the groceries, arrange the cheese plate, and start rinsing the fresh herbs. Little except the milk, creme fraiche, and meat go into the refrigerator, and there, I've made another mistake. La Chef likes to cook her meat at room temperature, and in her mind, even the dairy can remain on the countertops, since we'll be cooking with it soon enough. An animated conversation about bacteria and hygiene ensues, with no real consensus other than that the French and we Americans treat food very differently.

We start by chopping the herbs--tarragon, Italian parsley, chives, and chervil--and a handful of baby spinach. Together, the chopped greens are called a chiffonade, for the way they resemble strips of cloth or ribbons, and we set them to cook slowly in butter. La Chef chops a beautiful creamy white cauliflower into large florettes and places them in a casserole to cook slowly in milk, cream, and a sprikling of curry powder. Next, we chop the mushrooms and roasted beets--sold already cooked--for the salad, drizzling fresh lemon juice and olive oil over the top. Soon, the chiffonade is soft and ready to stuff into the veal and pork scallops. La Chef does not wash her meat before handling. "E. coli" and salmonella seem to be of no concern here.

Once we've stuffed the meat with the chiffonade, we roll the pieces in homemade breadcrumbs (crushed nuts is another option that my father and I try the next day with walnuts he picked in the Dordogne) and saute them in two large pans. Next comes the tart, a simple preparation once the crust is partially baked. For the almond filling, we cream together butter (82% butterfat), sugar, a little flour, and powdered almonds, adding an egg and kirsch to make a moist paste. The young woman from Irvine helps spread the paste over the crust. She's hoping to become a pastry chef and has been accepted at Le Cordon Bleu's California pastry school. Classes start in January.

In the oven, the paste cooks briefly in the crust while we slice fresh figs to arrange carefully over the top. The tart goes back into the oven for another few minutes to release the juices of the blood-red fruit, and we turn to pureeing the cauliflower and preparing the potatoes. At last, we direct our attention to the final preparation of the meal--the sauce for the meats. Sauces can seem tricky, but if you've got a nice cut of meat with plenty of natural fatty juices, the work is done for you. One of the San Francisco lawyers lifts the scallops out of the frying pans and onto a platter, and his wife adds white vermouth to deglaze the pans, turning the heat up high to thicken the mixture of wine and drippings. At the last minute, La Chef directs her to stir a dollop of creme fraiche and another of French mustard into each pan, and lunch is served.

1 partially baked pastry crust for an 8-inch pie
2 pounds fresh figs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup powdered almonds
1 TBSP flour
3 ounces softened, unsalted butter
1 egg
1 TBSP kirsch (optional)
1 TBSP honey, warmed slightly

1) Wash the figs. Cut off the tops and slice the figs into rounds (don't peel them).
2) To make the almond paste, mix the sugar with the powdered almonds and flour. Cream in the butter. Add the egg and kirsch and stir til blended.
3) Fill the partially baked pastry crust with the almond paste, spreading it evenly.
4) Bake the almond-filled crust for 10 minutes at 350 degrees Farenheit. Remove from oven.
5) Arrange the fig slices in concentric circles on top of the paste, coat the figs lightly with the warmed honey, and return to the oven.
6) Bake the tart for 15-20 minutes more, or until the almond paste and figs are colored. Remove and serve at room temperature. Note: fresh berries are a nice substitute for the figs.


Martha said...

Yay! I'm glad your back online. I've been savoring (pun intended) your entries. Are you sure you'll be coming back in 10 days? Or should Sarah and the pets start brushing up on their French.

The almond-fig tart sounds heavenly. I'm curious, though, is a pastry crust the same as a regular ol' pie crust or is it made differently?

fresca said...'ll be making this for us I assume??? At least, when figs are in season here. Come to think of it, I saw some dark figs at Bill's Imports (Greek store) last week. But by November I bet they'll be done... So...NEXT year!!!