Tuesday marks France's national day, Bastille Day, where Francophiles worldwide celebrate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and a turning point in the French Revolution. A public holiday, July 14 is as celebrated as enthusiastically as St Patrick's Day is here, with carnivals, parties, parades, feasts and fireworks.
Many of us will be staying in Ireland this summer, so why not bring a little bit of France here and celebrate some of the classics of French cuisine on Irish soil?
One of my favourite summer salads has to be the salade Nicoise, which is originally from the city of Nice on the French Riviera. There are many different versions of this colourful dish, but most will contain haricots verts (green beans), hard-boiled eggs, tuna, olives, lettuce and a French dressing.
This version, right, uses pan-fried mackerel instead of the classic tuna, but feel free to be purist about it and leave out the mackerel. Either way, make sure to make a really good, gutsy French dressing that serves as the backbone to this deliciously substantial summertime salad, and only use the best red, ripe tomatoes.
A delicious and very French way to start the day is with brioche. I adore it with a strong, milky coffee. This recipe, far right, which we teach at the cookery school, is a great version, and happily it rises overnight in the fridge so just needs to be shaped, proven and baked the next morning.
Serve it warm with some butter melting on top and for that extra je ne sais quoi, top with a little confiture a la fraise - strawberry jam. My recipe here is simple and delicious.
If you are cooking waxy new potatoes, boil them, covered in salted water, until they are tender. However if you're cooking floury new potatoes, pour off three-quarters of the water half-way through the cooking time, then allow them to cook in the steam in the covered pot over a low heat until they are tender.
Makes 4 x 375g jars
You will need:
1kg granulated sugar
1kg fresh or frozen strawberries, hulled
Juice of 2 lemons
1 Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4.
2 Put the granulated sugar in an ovenproof bowl and put it in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes to warm through.
3 Meanwhile, put the fresh or frozen strawberries, whichever you're using, and the lemon juice in a large, wide saucepan set over a medium heat. Using a potato masher, mash the fruit until it is almost all in a mush. Turn up the heat, bring the mixture to the boil and cook it for 2 minutes until it is juicy.
4 Add the warm sugar to the strawberries and lemon juice mixture. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then boil the jam for another six minutes, stirring frequently. If there is any scum on top (a pale pink froth, from dust or impurities in the fruit), skim it off using a slotted spoon and discard it.
5 Remove the saucepan from the heat while you test the jam to see if it is set. To test whether your jam or marmalade is set, put a teaspoonful of jam on a chilled saucer and place it in the fridge. When the jam is cold, run your finger through the 'blob' - if a wrinkle forms in the skin on top, then the jam is set. If the jam hasn't set, boil it for a minute or so longer and test it again. Remove the pan from the heat, pot the jam into sterilised jars (see Note, below) and cover the jars with lids or jam covers while the jam is still hot.
Note: To sterilise jars for jams and preserves, wash the jars in hot soapy water, then rinse them and dry them. Place the jars, upturned, on a baking tray in a warm oven preheated to at least 120°C, 250°F, Gas ½ for approximately 15 minutes until the jars are completely dry. Leave them upturned on a clean tea towel until you're ready to use them. Alternatively, you can put the jars through a hot cycle in the dishwasher.
You will need:
1-2 mackerel fillets per person
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50ml white wine vinegar
175ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely grated
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon torn fresh basil, plus a few small basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
10-12 medium-sized new potatoes - see my Top Tip, above
100g French beans
3-6 eggs, depending on the portion sizes (allow ½ to 1 egg per person)
4 ripe tomatoes or 12 cherry tomatoes
8 spring onions
1 crisp lettuce, separated into leaves
12 black olives, stones removed
1 teaspoon capers
1 tin anchovies, drained
25g butter, softened or 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Some chive flowers or borage flowers to garnish (optional)
1 First, season the mackerel fillets with some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and chill them until you are ready to cook.
2 Next, make the French dressing (when the potatoes and the beans are cooked, they'll need to be dressed while they are warm to absorb the flavours). To make the dressing, put the white wine vinegar, the extra-virgin olive oil, the crushed or finely grated garlic, whichever you're using, the Dijon mustard, the chopped fresh parsley and the torn fresh basil in a bowl or a small blender. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and set aside.
3 Cook the new potatoes in boiling salted water until they are tender - about 20 minutes. Once the potatoes are cooked, cut them into slices or wedges. While the potatoes are still warm, toss them in a couple of tablespoonfuls of the French dressing, and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
4 Add a good pinch of sea salt to a small saucepan of water, place the pan on a high heat and bring it to the boil. Tip the French beans in and cook them, uncovered, for about 4 minutes until they are almost tender, then drain them and toss them in another tablespoonful of the French dressing. Cut the beans into shorter lengths, or in half if you wish, and set them aside.
5 Next, put the eggs in another small pot of boiling water and boil them for seven minutes for soft-boiled yolks, or 10 minutes for hard-boiled egg yolks. When the eggs are ready, pour cold water over them to stop them cooking, then peel them (see Rachel Recommends, left) and cut them into halves or quarters.
6 Cut the tomatoes into chunks or wedges, and slice the spring onions at an angle and set them aside.
7 Take the seasoned mackerel fillets out of the fridge and put a frying pan over a medium heat.
8 Line a shallow bowl with the lettuce leaves and arrange the dressed potatoes, the dressed beans, the eggs, the tomatoes, and the sliced spring onions over the top. Scatter over the olives, the capers and the anchovy fillets.
9 Dry each mackerel fillet with kitchen paper. If you are using the 25g butter, sparingly spread a little of it on the flesh side of each fillet. If you're using using the extra-virgin olive oil, drizzle it straight into the hot pan. Turn the heat up to high and place the mackerel, flesh-side down, on the pan for 2 or 3 minutes, then turn it over and cook it on the other side until the skin is crispy and golden. Cook all the mackerel fillets this way.
10 Drizzle some more French dressing over the salad in the bowl and toss it really gently. Scatter it with chive flowers or borage flowers, if you are using them. Serve the salad with one or two fillets of mackerel criss-crossed on top of each salad, or leave the salad in the bowl, arrange the cooked mackerel fillets on top, and serve straight away.
When you're peeling hard-boiled eggs, first crush the shells by rolling the eggs gently on a work surface. Next, hold the eggs under cold running water and peel away the shell with your hands.
If you have very fresh eggs, wait until they're three days old before hard-boiling them, otherwise the hard-boiled whites will crumble away when peeling.
Makes 15-20 individual brioches or 2 large ones in loaf tins
You will need:
25g fresh yeast, or 12g dried yeast
50g caster sugar
65ml tepid water (roughly body temperature)
4 eggs, beaten
450g strong white flour, plus a little extra for finishing the individual brioches
A large pinch of salt
225g soft butter, plus 25g melted butter for greasing the tins For the egg wash, you will need:
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon milk
1 You will also need 15-20 individual brioche moulds (or 2 x 12-hole muffin trays) or 2 loaf tins. Add the yeast and the caster sugar to the tepid water, and put the mixture in the bowl of an electric mixer. Allow to stand for five minutes. Add the beaten eggs, the strong white flour and the pinch of salt, and mix to a stiff dough with the dough hook.
2 When the mixture is smooth, beat in the soft butter in small pieces. Don't add the next piece of butter until the previous piece has been completely assimilated. This kneading stage should take about 20 minutes. The finished dough should have a silky appearance. It should come away from the sides of the bowl, and when you touch the dough, it should be damp but not sticky. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover it and leave it to rest it overnight in the fridge.
3 The following day, prepare your brioche moulds, muffin trays, or tins, whichever you are using, by brushing them well with the melted butter. Then, working quickly, remove the dough from the fridge, and knock it back by folding it in on itself. It is crucial you work quickly, otherwise the butter will begin to melt and the dough will be too sticky to handle.
4 If your kitchen is very warm, when you're making individual brioches, keep half of the dough in the fridge while you work with the rest of it. If you are making individual brioches, weigh the dough into 50g pieces and roll these into balls. Use the side of your hand to roll each ball of dough in to a teardrop shape - do this by rolling with the pressure slightly off centre - it should resemble a bowling skittle. Put the dough, heavy-end first, into the buttered brioche moulds or holes of the muffin trays. Push the 'little hat' of dough towards the centre, leaving it just protruding above the body of the dough. Dip the thick end of a chopstick in a little flour and push it down through the dough, almost to the bottom - this may sound strange, but at the cookery school, we have found it is the best method to keep the 'little hat' in place. Brush the top of each brioche gently with the egg wash.
5 If you're making loaves of brioche in two loaf tins, divide the dough in half. Shape one half of the dough into a loaf by rolling it the length of the loaf tin, then put the dough in the buttered loaf tin, with the smoother side facing up. Repeat with the remaining piece of dough. Brush the tops of the loaves with egg wash.
6 Allow the shaped brioche loaves to prove on your kitchen counter for 45 minutes to 1 hour until they have almost doubled in size.
7 While the brioches are proving, preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4.
8 Brush the brioches very gently again with egg wash and bake the individual ones in the centre of the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until they are a deep golden colour and sound hollow when they are tapped on the base.
9 If you are making large brioches, they will take approximately 40-50 minutes to cook in the preheated oven. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.
10 Take the individual brioches or the brioche loaves out of the tins and place them on a wire rack to cool for just a couple of minutes before serving.
Photography by Tony Gavin