Friday 23 February 2018

Côte of many flavours

Donal Skehan shares dishes inspired by his holidays

Pan Bagnat (Pressed Nicoise Sandwich)
Pan Bagnat (Pressed Nicoise Sandwich)
Deep fried courgette flowers stuffed with goat's cheese and lavender honey
Salade de Tomates (Tomato & Basil salad)
Donal shares dishes inspired by a recent trip to France

Donal Skehan

France was a regular holiday destination for my family when I was a child, but it wasn't until age 12, when I was packed off alone to French family friends, that I really fell in love with the country and cuisine.

The day there starts and ends with food, from freshly baked bread in the bakeries, to passionate butchers and daily food markets heaving with vibrantly coloured fruit and vegetables.

Snatching a few days at the start of the month, myself and Sofie headed to the Cote d'Azur. We stayed near the quiet village of Auribeau, 30 minutes from Cannes, set high on the hills and surrounded by forest.

On one of our last evenings there, we ate in a fuss-free restaurant overlooking the valley and enjoyed foie gras with rhubarb and gingerbread toasts, duck breast and crepes suzette, all French, rich and delicious.

Another highlight was a meal in the picturesque Mougins, another village close by: duck ravioli with asparagus soup, braised veal kidney and an indulgent dessert of two dark chocolate Twix cakes with rich peanut butter and caramel.

However, most of our meals were cooked at home, and whenever I travel, my first stop is at a local market. Although Cannes may be more well known for its red carpets, food lovers flock to Marche Forville to choose from the freshest produce.

Warm potato and radish salad
Warm potato and radish salad

The market visits encouraged me to make use of the kitchen at the old farmhouse we stayed in. Armed with Elizabeth David's 'French Provincial Cooking', which my mom thrust into my arms before I headed off, I cooked light and simple dishes most evenings, leaving us time for dusk walks.

Pan bagnat is a traditional Nicoise pressed sandwich, perfect for lunchtime snacking, while deep-fried courgette flowers stuffed with goat's cheese and drizzled with lavender honey makes for a dreamy dinner.

Finally, sweet baking recipes such as the simple apricot tart make the best use of fresh produce from the market.

Pan bagnat (Pressed Nicoise Sandwich)

A typical snack of the Provencal region in France, pan bagnat is a pressed sandwich filled with produce of the region. It can be found in most cafés, but is incredibly easy to make at home and makes a wonderful addition to any picnic spread.

The traditional version uses a round loaf specifically baked for the dish, but I use the more readily available baguette.

The sandwich can be made in advance, but is best enjoyed two to three hours after it's made.

Serves two.

YOU WILL NEED

1 small baguette

3-4 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil

2-3 tbsps olive tapenade

4-6 beef tomatoes, cut in slices

2 tbsps balsamic vinegar

A small handful of basil leaves

4-6 anchovy fillets

1 small red onion, finely sliced

1 small handful green olives, pitted

Sea salt and ground black pepper

Method

Cut the baguette in half and then in half again lengthways. Drizzle the cut sides of the baguette with olive oil until it is soaked through.

Spread the tapenade over two halves of the baguette and then layer on top the tomatoes drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and sprinkle over the basil leaves, anchovy fillets, onion, green olives and seasoning.

Place the other baguette halves on top and then roll up tightly in parchment paper. Tie tightly with string and then place in the fridge between two baking sheets with a heaving weight on top for at least 30 minutes.

When you are ready to serve, unwrap and enjoy.

Deep-fried courgette flowers stuffed with goat's cheese

One of my favourite dishes at the Salt Yard restaurant in London is these deep-fried courgette flowers. The flowers are stuffed with creamy goat's cheese then deep-fried in a tempura-style batter and drizzled with sweet lavender honey. Recreating them at home was easier than I thought, so if you spot courgette flowers at the market then snap them up. The male flowers don't have the small courgettes attached, so make sure you choose the female variety with immature fruit attached.

Serves two to four.

YOU WILL NEED

250g soft goat's cheese

2 sprigs thyme leaves, finely chopped

8-12 baby courgettes with the flower attached

1 litre sunflower oil, to fry

2-3 tbsps lavender honey For the batter 8 tbsps plain flour

8 tbsps ice-cold sparkling water

Sea salt and ground black pepper

Method

In a bowl, mix together the goat's cheese and thyme leaves. Open each courgette flower and carefully stuff with a heaped teaspoon of of the herby cheese. Seal the the flowers by gently twisting the tops of the petals around the cheese. Then heat the oil in a large high-sided pot over a medium heat.

Mix together the flour and sparkling water until you have a light and runny batter – it should be just thick enough to coat the courgette flowers – and season.

Carefully working beside the hot oil, dip the courgette flowers into the batter to coat completely, allowing any excess to drip off.

Gently place the coated courgettes, in batches of four at a time, into the hot oil and allow to cook until golden for three to four minutes, turning halfway through the cooking time if necessary. You can check if they are tender by piercing the flesh with a fork.

Using a slotted spoon, place the cooked courgette flowers on a plate lined with kitchen paper, then serve immediately, drizzled with lavender honey and seasoned.

Warm Potato and Radish Salad with a French Dressing

The balance of oil to vinegar is generally one of the distinguishing features of a classic French dressing, where it is often assumed as a ratio of 6:1, compared to the more astringent version I prefer to make, at a ratio of 3:1.

Of course, it is down to personal taste and, like with any dressing, it is important to sample as you go along.

What I love about this rather simple salad is the warm potatoes soak up the tangy mustard oil and the radishes and lettuce leaves are left glossy and gleaming. It's good as a supper in itself or as a side dish to grilled meats or fish.

Serves four to six.

YOU WILL NEED

800g baby potatoes

1 large bunch radishes, leaves and stalks removed

4 heads baby gem lettuce, broken into leaves

½ onion, very finely sliced (optional) For the dressing 6 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil

1-2 tbsps white-wine vinegar

1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Sea salt and ground black pepper

Method

Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Cover with a lid and place over a high heat. Bring to a steady simmer and cook for 12-15 minutes until the potatoes are still slightly firm but tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork.

While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Whisk together the ingredients for the salad dressing, adjusting to your taste.

In a large bowl, combine the radishes, lettuce leaves and onion slices (if using).

When the potatoes are cooked, drain in a colander under cold water. As soon as the potatoes are just cool enough to handle, slice them in half and add to the radishes and lettuce leaves.

Pour over the dressing and toss until the salad is evenly coated.

Serve straight away.

Salade De Tomates (Tomato & Basil Salad)

Tomatoes in season are one of nature's true gifts and although there are many ways to enjoy them, for me, serving them freshly sliced and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and garnished with a few herbs from the garden, is the best.

There are many varieties of tomato to choose from. For a salad like this, which really celebrates them, try to use a variety.

I use basil leaves here, but thyme or oregano work just as well. Serve as a simple summer salad or as a side dish to grilled meats and fish.

Serves four.

YOU WILL NEED

8-10 tomatoes (a good variety)

3 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

A good handful of basil leaves

Sea salt and ground black pepper

Method

Slice the tomatoes and arrange them on a serving plate.

Whisk together the oil and vinegar until combined and drizzle over the tomatoes.

Tear and scatter over the basil leaves and season with the sea salt and black pepper, then serve immediately. If you prepare the tomatoes ahead of time, season just before you are ready to serve as the salt will draw the liquid out of the tomatoes.

Tarte a L'Abricot (apricot tart)

It's hard to resist beautiful fruits like apricots when they start appearing in shops all plump and fragrant. Although they are best enjoyed eaten as they are, a simple free-form tart such as this apricot galette can really celebrate them while they are at their best.

Serves four to six.

YOU WILL NEED

8 ripe apricots

2 tbsps caster sugar

1 vanilla pod, split and beans scraped For the pastry 200g plain flour

140g butter, cold and cut in cubes

2 tbsps caster sugar

Zest of ½ an orange, optional

1 large free-range egg, lightly beaten

To make the pastry, combine the flour and butter in a bowl and, using your finger tips, rub the butter into the flour until you have a mixture which resembles rough breadcrumbs.

Stir through the sugar and orange zest and, using one to two tablespoons of cold water, bring together the dough to form a rough ball. Press this flat and cover with cling film and place in the fridge to rest for 15 minutes.

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Prepare the apricots by carefully slicing down from the stalk to the base and all the way around. Twist the two halves apart and pull out the stone.

Toss the apricot halves in a bowl with the caster sugar and vanilla beans until completely coated.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out a 30cm round, 5mm in thickness, between two sheets of parchment paper. Transfer to a baking sheet and remove the top layer of parchment.

Arrange the apricots in the centre of the pastry, leaving about 5cm free around the sides. Carefully bring the sides of the pastry up and over the apricots all the way around. You can use the parchment paper to help you.

Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and place in the oven on the middle rack to cook for 40 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and the fruit has reduced and caramelised.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly, then serve warm slices with vanilla ice cream or lightly whipped cold cream.

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