In Cassis, Aix-en-Provence, and Menton

CASSIS Chocolat Chaud

Hot Chocolate and Croissants in Cassis

Two summers ago, Maman rented a little apartment in this town none of us had ever heard of: Cassis.  Spelled like the black currant liqueur, but the “s” is silent when you say the town’s name.  Mr. English and I stayed for a few weeks, and we toured around all over Provence, and some of the Riviera, discovering gorgeous seaside villages and majestic perched medieval towns.  I wrote about it all in the Papiers Provence.  So, as my father was in town, and because he had never seen our little seaside getaway, we drove the two and a half hours to Cassis.

It’s a simple town.  Not fancy.  Right on the sea.  With sailboats docked, and a petanque court, and a pebble beach.  It is a natural cove, between the giant calanques, these seaside cliff inlets, that blockade it off from Marseille.  But what I love about Cassis is it’s not to touristy.  The shops sell lovely things.  The restaurants have good food.  There’s an Amorino gelato bar (I’m an addict), and a real beachside ice cream and sandwich vendor that sells me my merguez frites sandwiches for 4.50.  The sea is cold and fresh.  And the sunset against the huge stone cliffs is breathtaking.  There are little garden restaurants that serve ceviche of the local scorpionfish, and seaside terraces that serve “the best bouillabaisse from here to Paris”.  We arrived early, around 9, and I sat down for my breakfast of champions: chocolat chaud and pain au chocolat.  I think only an American would ever order that much chocolate, but I loved it!  Then, we boarded one of the tour boats for the calanques, and a small merry band of us set to sea.  We wove in and out of the secret inlets, the sea so bleu-marine that it was like a siren’s call to dive in and escape the clear sun.  We could see straight to the bottom of the deep sea, and almost straight to the tops of the cliffs.  We arrived to shore windswept, and sad that we’d already seen the whole tiny town, and were moving on to Aix.

CASSIS Calanques 1

Cap Canaille in Cassis

CASSIS Calanques 2

The Cassis Calanques

CASSIS Calanques 3CASSIS Calanques 4

CASSIS Sea

The Deep Blue Sea in Cassis

I first came to Aix when I was fifteen–my mom took me on a little vacation in the South of France for an early sweet sixteen gift.  I was breathlessly in love with the whole place.  And Aix was my favorite.  We stayed right on the Cours Mirabeau, a shady eighteenth century-looking avenue through the middle of town, with platane trees that tangle their fingers up over the road, and a building that looks held up by two famous Atlas figures bearing up the lintel of the front door.  I tried to take a picture to share them, but they are being cleaned.  I guess a shower after a few hundred years is probably a good thing.

I found Aix, back then, almost sleepy.  Not so two years ago, and not so now.  It is bustling, full of all my favorite French-only shops–Princesse Tam-Tam, Petit Bateau, Aigle–and restaurants and crowds.  But the markets remain my favorite, and they sell purple asparagus, pistou-soaked green olives, zucchini flowers, fruits-de-mer, and my favorite, this homespun, completely not Laduree macarons.  I have a whole post coming on those, because I think they’re the next big thing.

AIX Vegetable Lasagna

Ratatouille Lasagna in Aix-en-Provence

We dug up an old favorite lunch spot of ours, Le Pizza, and ordered one of those dishes that you dream about and drive anywhere for (my French In-N-Out burger): vegetable lasagna.  It sounds weirds, I know, to drive hours for a vegetable lasagna, but this one is à la Provençal.  A layer of chunky ratatouille in the bottom of a gratin dish, covered in fresh lasagna noodles, a simple tomato sauce, and a mix of mozzarella and Gruyère bubbling on top.  I had to stop myself, so I could save room for my rustic macarons, which I bought in chocolate-raspberry, lavender, and pistachio.  Again, more on those to come…

AIX Natural Macarons 1

Jars of Macarons, au naturale, in Aix

AIX Natural Macarons 2AIX Natural Macarons 3

AIX Crazy Savory Macarons

Some crazy, savory macaron flavors in Aix: Smoked Salmon with Dill and Fruit Coulis; Shrimp with Anise and Lemon Confit; Foie Gras with Fig and Speck; Goat Cheese with Bacon and Tapenade

We drove back to La Turbie, desperate for our “local”–Café de la Fontaine.  But they were booked.  We drove to Menton, and everywhere was absolutely booked.  Lesson: on the Riviera, in summer, make a reservation.  No matter how crummy some these places look, and how all their tables are empty, they’re “booked”.  Starving and cranky, we tumbled into a little café that I would never recommend because the service was so rude, but we had the best bowls of moules marinière I’ve had in a while.  With itsy-bitsy, tiny mussels.  So much sweeter and less like dead tongues in your mouth than those giants everyone oohs and ahhs for.  I woke up the next morning still tasting the garlic.

MENTON Mussels Mariniere

Teeny, Tiny Moules Marinière in Menton

MENTON Salade

The Mussels Came "Frites-Salade"

MENTON Frites

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French in a Flash: Little Stuffed Zucchinis

RECIPE: Little Stuffed Zucchinis
Round Zucchinis

Little Round French Courgettes

I was inspired to make these by my trip to Nice, and a walk around the Menton market.  Bon app!

Get the whole story on Serious Eats.

The thing I love most about actually writing this column from France (okay, what’s not to love?) is that I get to cook like the French do. I have no idea what I want to make; I just go down to the market and I pick something. Last week, the market inspired the tagliatelle with zucchini flower pistou. This week, it’s stuffed zucchini.

All around the area of Nice they sell petits farcis—which means “little stuffed things”-in stalls on the street and in markets. It’s made of hollowed out eggplant, zucchini, tomato, or pepper stuffed with meat, vegetable, bread or rice, and cheese. [It's a mixture of mini bits of eggplant, zucchini, tomato, and pepper stuffed with meat, vegetable, bread or rice, cheese.] I made my own petit farcis with little, fat, cherubically round zucchinis from the market that I’ve wanted to try for years, and a vegetarian filling of fresh bread crumbs, zucchini flesh, mint, basil, pecorino, olive oil, garlic, onion, and chili. Stuffed to the brim with the filling and topped with a zucchini stem chapeau, the little zucchini looked charming-and, I think, slightly more elegant appeal than the petits farcis from the street. Plus, it’s one of those inexpensive and convenient dinners that comes straight from the pantry. All I have to do is pick up a few zucchini since I always have the rest of the ingredients sitting in the house.

I ate way too much of this once it came out of the oven, giving credence to the fact that this little piggy went to market.

Stuffed Zucchini

Zucchinis Stuffed with Bread, Pecorino, Olive Oil, Walnuts, Chili, Onion, Garlic, Mint, and Basil!

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Categories: 60 Minutes, Cheap, Eat, French in a Flash, Main Courses, Recipes, Series, Sides, Vegetables, Vegetarian, Vegetarian
 

Back in Nice, Menton, and Monte Carlo

I’m back in France, having had to go back to London for a few days for work.  As soon as I landed, I went right back to Fenocchio, and made myself try new flavors, even though I love orange flower and am forever loyal to it.  This time, I had rice pudding ice cream (riz au lait) and pear sorbet.  The sorbet was killer, the ice cream was very good, with real plump grains of rice tucked into the frozen cream.  My dad, in Nice for the first time, had the spekuloos.  Amazing as ever, and of course, I stole half of it.

Pichade

Pichade

Barba Juan

Barba Juan

Blette Beignets

Zucchini Flower Beignet Menton

Zucchini Flower Beignet in Menton

Sweet Apple Beignet

Sweet Apple Beignet

The next morning, we went to the market in Menton, where one woman sets up her shop just outside the market.  She is the patron saint of all sinful, delicious, provençal foods.  She sells beignets and pizza.  Could two words ever fit more beautifully together?  I love her Barba Juan, these round fried balls stuffed with blette, a leafy green found in tarts all over the South of France.  Google Translate tells me it’s chard, but it tastes more like dandelion greens.  Just that touch almost sour, and verdant, and good.  And she has giant zucchini flower beignets–the best I’ve had.  Soft, and almost juicy in an impossible way.  She also sells this Menton-only cheeseless pizza, like a tomato pissaladière, called pichade.  I bought a sweet apple beignet from her too.  I love her!  And that was my breakfast.  When in France…

The Monte Carlo Casino

The Monte Carlo Casino

Amazing Ratatouille

Amazing Ratatouille

Pink Grapefruit Sorbet

Pink Grapefruit Sorbet

For a late lunch, I took my father to Monte Carlo, to a famous restaurant called Café de Paris.  I was there when I was fifteen–I was kicked out of the casino for being too young.  So my mom took me there and bought me ratatouille as a consolation.  I never forget that ratatouille, because it was the best of my life.  I find it very difficult to make well, and this one was cut into a million tiny die, like the ones that come with a travel backgammon game.  They don’t cut it so petite anymore, but I have to report, that even thought it is incredibly overpriced, it is still the best ratatouille I’ve ever had.  I followed it with more ice cream–pink grapefruit sorbet.  It’s getting to be a habit.

The bouillabaisse I had that night deserves its own post.  I spent the rest of the afternoon sneaking photographs of recipe postcards in a gift shop.  I was desperate!  The perfect soupe au pistou might be my holy grail.

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Working Girl Dinners Goes Moroccan!

RECIPE: Merguez Bake with Peppers and Couscous

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. My grandmother, my Mémé, was born in Casablanca, making her a teenager around the time of Rick’s Café Americain (if only Humphrey Bogart ever really lived there). She came to France as a teenager, but she still cooks the most amazing Moroccan food, and I am besotted with it. Whenever I go home to Florida, I beg her for her specialties–things I can barely pronounce and definitely can’t spell. But there is one thing that’s as popular in France as it is in Morocco, and that’ Merguez: the spicy lamb sausage I grilled up for Bastille Day. It’s perfect for Working Girl cooking because it’s slightly exotic, which makes it exciting, but it’s also so flavorful on it’s own, stuffed with garlic, harissa, spices like cumin and coriander–so you really don’t have to do anything other than put it in the oven, where it releases the most gorgeous, fragrant juices.

I love this simple bake, inspired by Nigella Lawson, who does a similar dish with Halloumi: I put Merguez and roasted red peppers on a tray in the oven. Meanwhile, I fluff up a pile of couscous. The sausage is intensely smoky and spicy, and the peppers are sweet, and the couscous is mild and filling. An effortless trip on the Marrakech Express! I promise–anyone can make this in minutes. Plus, learning to make couscous is a Working Girl must because it cooks on counter in five minutes with just hot water, and can be paired with anything as a quick side instead of potatoes, or pasta, or rice. If you want to fancy it up, scatter some fresh cilantro leaves over the top of each plate.

Merguez Bake with Peppers and Couscous
serves 2

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 12-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained and cut into strips
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ½ pound Merguez sausages
  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 small handful fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

PROCEDURE

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

On a small rimmed baking pan, toss together the sausages and red peppers, and season with salt and pepper.  Bake for 25 minutes, flipping everything over once.

Meanwhile, combine the couscous with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl.  Pour the boiling water over the couscous, and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap.  Let stand 5 to 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

Serve the peppers, merguez, and couscous together on the plate, and top with fresh cilantro for a fancy flourish!

NOTE

If your supermarket doesn't sell Merguez, you can find it any any Middle Eastern or Kosher grocer--and sometimes gourmet shops.  If all else fails, just use another exotic and spicy sausage, like chorizo or andouille.

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Cheap, Easy, Eat, Main Courses, Meat, Recipes, Series, Watch, Working Girl Dinners
 

In Èze, Peillon, Biot

I have this serious preoccupation with the “village perché,” or the “perched village.”  Down in Provence, and towards the Riviera, there are all these medieval towns, perched like eagles’ nests on promontory mountainous rocks.  They are full of tiny, perfectly rectangular doorways with wood slabs doors, and footpaths made from the stones of the mountains that curve and go up and down and double back on themselves.  How quaint.  Tiny churches that you can tell the whole town once faithfully fit into.  Hanging gardens, terraces that jut out over the valley below.  It really is like having your head in the clouds–which we literally did when we visited Èze.  But the point is, I collect two things: visits to these villages, and pressed pennies (yes, it’s true!).  But if I see a sign for a medieval “village perché,” we have to go.

Èze

My favorite to date has been Les Baux, which I visited two years ago.  The sad truth is that so many of these villages, which once seemed to have been so self-contained, are now there for tourists.  At Èze, we saw a candy stand on the way up the mountain, and the cafés are not what you would call authentic–although, great coffee and crêpes were surprisingly available.  But the shops in Les Baux seem to actually offer something, and the views and scenery are straight out of Lord of the Rings.  It’s breathtaking.

EZE Clouds

Èze: A View of the Clouds

EZE Crepes

Lemon and Sugar Crêpes in Èze

EZE View 1

The view from Èze

EZE Trees

Gardens in Èze

EZE Street

The tiny streets of Èze

EZE Street 2

Isn't Èze quaint?

EZE Staircase

EZE Garden 2

Fantasy Gardens in Èze

EZE Garden 1EZE Flower Bush

EZE Flower Bush

A door in Èze

As for Èze, whose old castle is lit up gorgeously at night with floodlights, we had to go.  Just on the way home every night, we can see it, and of course, a perched village with a floodlit castle is like a siren’s call to me.  The day that we went was overcast, and once we’d marched up the mountain to the town, we were literally in a cloud.  The whole town felt even more insular that it already did.  But I think what struck me most about Èze was the little courtyard on the side of the mountain where the church was.  It was the kind of church that you know the whole town went to.  And it couldn’t have fit more than a couple of hundred people.  And outside, as in all French towns and city, was the memorial to the WWI dead of the town, with the WWII losses tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought, around the WWI list.  What struck us was the repeat of names: six from one Asso family.  My mom turned to me and asked, do you think that was the end of the whole family?  I just imagined what life must have been like in these tiny town, so recently untouched and almost medieval, and then to either have to leave to go out into such a scary world, or remain back and watch people leave from such a small, tight-knit community.  Well–as a New Yorker from this day in age, I don’t think I can really relate, and it was that distance that I found so special about Èze.  So much has changed so quickly.  Although, I did think to myself about how I had walked by my old NYC apartment building, where I grew up, and saw plaques on the garden wall to our neighbors lost on 9/11–and I thought, maybe things aren’t so different between a small town and a big city, or the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  We all make communities for ourselves, and find ourselves in wars we can’t imagine having started.

Peille & Peillon

The next day, we drove to Peillon, a teeny, tiny village perché whose town ordinance forbids any kind of tourist shop–which has kept it perhaps a true village perché, frozen in time and place.  It was there that I found the answer to my mom’s question.  As we were touring the empty streets, if you can call them streets, I looked up into the metal window in a wooden door to see a kitten clinging mischievously to the inside.  I walked over to coo at it, and it jumped back into the house.  On the door, was a For Sale sign, by a certain couple by the name of Asso.  We looked at each other in shock–even though six had died in the war, two with the same first name, and one with a girl’s name, they had lived on.  True French resilience.

View from Peille and Peillon

PEILLON VillagePEILLON View 2PEILLON View 1PEILLON StreetPEILLON Street to SchoolPEILLON Lavender Jasmine

Peillon Kerry

It's me!

PEILLON FountainPEILLON Fountain 2PEILLON DoorwayPEILLON ChurchPEILLON Church SquarePEILLON Butterfly

Biot

BIOT Matelasse

Matelassé in Biot

And though I was inexplicably in a stormy mood, we carried on to Biot, where my mother likes to buy ashtrays.  It is a pottery stronghold, and if you are a smoker, which I am not, I suppose you will appreciate that they make special ashtrays that allow you to smoke outside without the ashes ever getting blown around.  Something to check out.  But there, I found gorgeous matelassé place mats and olive wood salad servers for my new apartment.  Because, I did hear Nate Berkus say that you should fill your home with beautiful things collected from your travels.  So I felt no guilt!

La Turbie

LA TURBIE Artichoke Salad

Artichoke Salad at Café de la Fontaine

LA TURBIE Mozzarella Tomato Salad

Mozzarella and Tomato Salad at Café de la Fontaine

LA TURBIE Lobster Salad

Lobster Salad at Café de la Fontaine

LA TURBIE Veal Provencal

Veal Provençal with Homemade Tortellini at Café de la Fontaine

In terms of eating between these villages, there was crêpes with lemon and sugar and café noisette (espresso stained with milk to the color of hazelnuts) in Èze.  In Biot, I took out a soggy slice of pissaladière I had bought at the boulangère in La Turbie–delish.  And then I bought a gorgeous tart, filled with a kind of pistachio frangipane, topped with fresh raspberries and the slightest drizzle of honey.  And then for dinner, back to La Turbie to the locally famous Café de la Fontaine, which has a changing menu.  I had veal stewed à la Provençal with olives and demi-glace, with homemade tortellini, and an artichoke salad.  It was there that I sat next to and spoke with a chef from a restaurant in Nice, but he was so long-winded, even more loquacious about food than I am, that I even grew bored and decided that’s a story for another time.

LA TURBIE Pissaladiere

My soggy, delicious, Pissaladière

BIOT Raspberry Tart

Raspberry and Pistachio Tart from Biot

LA TURBIE Fougasse

More Baked Goods from La Turbie: Whole Wheat Fougasse

LA TURBIE Pain au Chocolat

A delicious Pain au Chocolat

Café de la Fontaine: 4 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, 06320 La Turbie, 04 93 28 52 79

The bakery, Mr & MME Degot, is just down the street

Cap d'Ail Sign

This is why I wake up smelling of garlic in the South of France. It's so popular, they've named a little cape after it! Hilarious.

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Franglais: Zucchini Flower Fritters

RECIPE: Zucchini Flower Fritters
Zucchini Flower Fritters

Zucchini Flower Fritters

I promised a slew of zucchini flower recipes.  Here’s number two!

Get the whole story on The Huffington Post.

When I was in second grade, we had to make elevation-accurate plaster of Paris molds of our favorite continents.  I built, surprise, surprise, Europe, talking particular care of the Gallic region.  Sometime when I was attempting the Alps, this girl in my class, Christina, dipped a spoon into the plaster of Paris, and stuck the spoon in her mouth.  The teacher was apoplectic—nurses and poison control were called.  But when I asked Christina about it later, she just said to me, “What?  It was just like tuna salad.”

I love those moments where you go from thinking something is totally and completely inedible, to realizing that it is another delicious thing you can stick in your mouth.

I’ve had a few of these revelations.  Stinky cheese rinds (I used to think they were indigestible) to escargots (self-explanatory).  But none made me happier than the first time I ate zucchini blossoms.  They are like pale marigolds in color, like lilies in shape.  They sprout out like giant and wildly inappropriate headdresses on the end of young zucchini.  They’re not easy to come by in the States, but in Europe, where I am right now, they sell bunches of ten for a Euro.  They can’t get rid of them fast enough.  And I’m happy to oblige.

I’m recreating a Niçoise classic: zucchini flower beignets.  Every time I go to my favorite zucchini flower beignet vendor (yes, I have one) in Nice, they are sold out.  But the blossoms themselves are everywhere, and necessity is the mother of invention.  I whisked up a quick batter of water, egg, baking soda, and flour, and fried the flower fritters in olive oil, for Provençal flavor.  They puff up, and turn crisp on the outside, and slightly doughy within.  Traditionally, they are served with wedges of lemon, and salt.  Which is how I serve mine—and how you should consider serving yours.  The flowers add surprising meatiness, and a mellow almost-background flavor that tastes like nothing else.  Not like zucchini, and not like flowers.  Not like plaster of Paris or tuna salad either.  But rather like a fresh bite of a summer garden.  Hard to put into words, but not hard to put into your mouth.  They’re delicious.

Zucchini Flowers

Zucchini Flowers

Zucchini Flower Fritters
makes 12, serves 4
INGREDIENTS
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • Salt
  • 12 large zucchini flowers (see Note #1)
  • Lemon
PROCEDURE
Heat about 2 inches of oil in a saucepot over medium-high heat.  The oil will be hot enough when you dip the end of a wooden spoon in the oil, and bubbles rise up.
Meanwhile, whisk together the egg, flour, water, and baking soda, along with a good pinch of salt.  Dredge the flowers in the batter, and fry about 2 at a time (careful not to overcrowd the pan), turning once, until puffed and golden and cooked through: about 2 to 3 minutes.  Remove to a plate lined with paper towel, and salt the beignet.  Repeat with all the flowers, and serve immediately with cut lemon wedges.
NOTES
1.  You can either dip the flowers whole in the batter, or split them up one side, open them like a book, and then dunk them, for a broader beignet.
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Categories: 15 Minutes, Appetizers & Hors D’Oeuvres, Eat, For a Crowd, Franglais, Recipes, Series, Vegetarian
 

French in a Flash: Tagliatelle with Zucchini Flower Pistou

RECIPE: Tagliatelle with Zucchini Flower Pistou
Zucchini Flowers

Zucchini Flowers

(I love this recipe!)

Get the whole story on Serious Eats.

I travelled to the southeast of France last weekend to visit my parents, and because they’re renting a little apartment, that meant a lot of home-cooked dinners. Although I normally like to eat out in France to get inspiration from the different menus and plates, there was something satisfying, spontaneous, and real about constructing something special out of little local finds—living à la française.

We took a drive across the Italian border to Ventimiglia where we heard there was a market. And there, I found my vegetal Holy Grail: zucchini flowers. The market was vivid yellow with them. All around, they were arranged in great bridal bouquets, sold for only one euro for ten flowers. I could have swooned.

In Nice, where I had been they day before, they serve zucchini flowers on the streets as fried beignets in a batter that’s doughy but still crisp. In addition to those, I also made my own version of another dish I had had in Nice the night before: Tagliatelle au Pistou—wide, fresh pasta tossed in a very intense, garlicky pesto. Instead of basil, I used squash blossoms, mashed with garlic, olive oil, and walnuts. Made with fresh pasta from the Italian market, flowers just cut from the plant, intense garlic (if you’ve ever been to the South of France, you know how intense), and walnuts with a woody flavor like none I had ever had before, the result was spectacular—mellow, vegetal, and nutty. Even my pistou-hating stepfather ate half the pot. If you want to make something different and feel a little breeze from the Riviera, try this.

Tagliatelle with Zucchini Flower Pistou

Tagliatelle with Zucchini Flower Pistou

Tagliatelle with Zucchini Flower Pistou
serves 4

Tagliatelle with Zucchini Flower PistouINGREDIENTS

  • 500 grams or 1 pound fresh tagliatelle
  • 14 large zucchini flowers
  • 12 walnut halves
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parmesan on top

PROCEDURE

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and salt the water.  Separate the strands of pasta, and drop them into the water.  Cook according to package instructions, careful not to overcook the pasta (it should take about 2 to 3 minutes to cook).  Reserve a mug full of starchy pasta water, and drain the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, roughly chop the zucchini flowers, garlic, and walnuts.  Put them in the food processor with the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.  Blitz until you have the smooth consistency of a pesto.  Add the pistou and the tagliatelle back to the pot, and moisten with two spoonfuls of pasta water.  Toss to coat the pasta in the pistou, adding more pasta water if needed.  Serve right away, with grated good Parmesan to sprinkle on top.

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Easy, Eat, French in a Flash, Main Courses, Recipes, Series, Sides, Starches, Vegetarian, Vegetarian