Shells in Bechamel
When I first started going to my all-girls school at seven years old, I was confronted with a lot of “new things”—new to me anyway. Uniforms that zipped up the back instead of the front (as my old ones had done), calling our teachers Mrs. So-And-So and washing our hands before lunch (neither was enforced at my previous and less prestigious education institution), and mandatory recorder lessons. So much for a little girl to take in! But one thing twinkled like a diamond in the rough: manicotti.
Pasta lover though I was—and I was—I had never encountered the stuffed variety. Lunch at that school was always a sit-down affair, full of roast chickens and rice pilaf and buttered green beans. But every so often was manicotti day, and I would revel in the little tubes, tunnels under a Hudson River of tomato sauce, stuffed with ricotta that burst with enthusiasm out each end without any prodding or encouragement. One nudge from my fork and the whole thing collapsed, white gushing into red, and I would use the side of my fork as a spoon and raise the mashed mess into my mouth. Amid that new world, it was a mouthful of comfort. Every after, I was hooked: shells, tubes, ravioli, tortellini. They are all sunshine on a snowy day.
This recipe takes my old Italian favorite and stuffs it with French flavors. Undercooked pasta shells are stuffed with a light mixture of ricotta, goat cheese, green vegetables, mint, and tarragon. The resulting flavor is almost summery, but is then enveloped in a creamy, wintry béchamel, and gratin-ed in a crust of goat cheese until bubbly and golden. It serves a crowd, and imparts drizzly day comfort.
Chèvre and Greens Stuffed Shells in Bechamel
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 extra large shallot, finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 zucchini, finely cubed (brunoise)
- 2 cup broccoli florets, chopped up finely
- 1 10-ounce box frozen spinach, thawed, and wrung out of all excess liquid
- 1/2 cup thawed frozen peas
- 50 jumbo pasta shells
- 1 tablesppon butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1/2 cup milk
- pinch of nutmeg
- 2 pounds ricotta cheese
- 4 ounces goat cheese, plus 4 ounces
- 2 stems mint, leaves chopped
- 1 stem tarragon, leaves chopped
- 1 egg yolk
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 3/4 cup parmesan cheese
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- Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta, and salt it. Butter two 9”x13” baking dishes.
- Cook the jumbo pasta shells in the boiling water until just under al dente. Drizzle a large baking sheet with oil, and spread the shells out on it to allow them to become cool enough to handle.
- In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil and the butter, and add the shallot, garlic, zucchini, broccoli, and spinach. Season, and cook until fragrant and soft—about 5 to 7 minutes. Spoon into a bowl to cool.
- Meanwhile, mix the ricotta, 4 ounces of chevre, the egg yolk, the mint and tarragon, and the peas in a large bowl. When the vegetable mixture has slightly cooled, add it to the cheese mixture, and mix to combine.
- Make the béchamel by melting the butter in a saucepot. Whisk in the flour, and allow to cook over medium heat—watching with a close eye—for about 3 or 4 minutes, until the mixture smells a bit like cookies baking in the oven. Whisk in the cold milk, and then the cold cream. This won’t thicken as much as a traditional béchamel, so just whisk as you heat it through. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg.
- Stuff the shells with the cheese mixture, and place seam-side-down in the butter baking dishes. Pour half the béchamel over each baking dish. Top with more crumbled chevre, and parmesan.
- Bake the shells covered for 30 minutes at 375 degrees F. Then raise the heat to 400, and bake another 30 minutes uncovered.
Niçoise Chickpea Chips
I wrote in this week’s column that to me, Nice is France’s Venice, and if you’ve been to either, you’ll be able to imagine the food position of the other. A lonely traveler, upon entering either city, you immediately notice difference. In Venice, it’s the canals, and the arched-cat-back bridges. In Nice, it’s the feel of walking off the beach and into a fortress, with medievally serpentine streets and the feeling of grey stone against the blue, blue sky. And then there’s the food. In Venice, it’s a handful of things you rarely see again miles from the canals: cuttlefish, squid ink, chilies, saffron. And in Nice, the heart of the Riviera, in that city fortress is a bastion of dishes you won’t find outside the castle walls: socca, chickpea flour pancakes, zucchini flower beignets, pissaladière, legumes farcies. My time in Nice was one of the fullest times of my life, because I stopped nearly everywhere for something I absolutely HAD to try.
Chickpea Chip Ingredients
For the Oscars on Sunday, I am making these Niçoise Chickpea Chips (see my column French in a Flash at Serious Eats for the full recipe and article, as always). They are easier to make than homemade potato chips, but more unique. Think of them as haute couture snacks on your red carpet table. Except, all that is involved is gently crisping canned chickpeas in hot olive oil, and then tossing them with lemon zest and fleur de sel. To me, though they are certainly not traditionally Niçoise, they evoke all the flavors of the city: the chickpeas, the salty sea air, the deep fry that seems to come on everything, the lemon husks left over from drizzling beignets. Nice memories of Nice. Bon app!
Zucchini Flower Beignets
Niçoise Chickpea Chips
- Olive oil for frying
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 15.5-ounce can chickpeas, drained, rinsed, and very well dried
- 1 teaspoon fleur de sel
- Zest 1/2 lemon
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- Fill a small saucepot half full with olive oil, and heat over medium heat until it reaches 350°F. Drop the garlic clove into the oil when it is cold, and remove it as it comes to temperature—just to infuse the flavor into the oil.
- Fry the chickpeas in batches for about 5 minutes, carefully, as they may splatter. They will go from looking like cooked chickpeas to toasted hazelnuts—smaller, and golden, and crunchy. Drain on a paper towel, and toss with the fleur de sel and lemon zest.
Pastis and Mint Granita
I make granitas constantly. For one, you don’t need an ice cream maker, which I still don’t have. And two, the snowflake texture and melt-in-your-mouth sweet crystals are like a grown-up snow cone and slushy, all combined in one elegant champagne saucer.
This Pastis and Mint Granita is intensely fresh, full of anise and fresh green spearmint—a strong departure from the sweet lemon and strawberry varieties that are more popular. This granita tastes more like fennel than fruit. But food legend in my family has always held that anise, though often sipped as an aperitif, is really a digestive aid—like the little fennel-seed cookies whose crumbs I always leave scattered on the paper-covered tables of generous Italian restaurants.
Spicy Marseilles Clams and Mussels
I love this seafood stew for being both simple and complicated at once. Few of us can achieve that dichotomy without substantial artifice, but this dish stumbles into it without effort. As my Marseilles cousin said to me when I described the recipe, “These are not the mussels of Marseilles.” Perhaps not in the traditional sense, but I’ve taken the essences of Marseilles that inspire me—the seafood, the pastis, the saffron, the garlic—and bubbled them into a light, spicy dish that is both warming and weightless.
The dish takes, from beginning to end, perhaps twenty minutes. The subterranean perfume of anise wafts up from the subtle, but present, pastis and fennel. The floral saffron and hot chilies add further depth of flavor to what is otherwise a simple pot of seafood. The clams leach their signature briny liquor, and add a sweet emphasis and contrast of texture to the quotidian mussels. It’s a pot of mussels taken to new Provençal heights. And if you want to make this moules frites, I suggest you try it with sweet potato fries and some good crusty bread. Use the shells to spoon the hot broth into your mouth like a suppertime elixir—it’s bright, fresh, and life-giving.
Marseilles-Style Spicy Clams and Mussels
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 shallots, finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1/4 fennel, thinly sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
- 1/4 cup Pastis
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 teaspoon saffron
- 1 pound mussels
- 1 pound little neck clams
- 1 tablespoon butter, very cold
- 2 tablespoon fennel fronds, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chervil, chopped
- In a wide risotto pan, heat the olive oil over medium to medium-low heat and add the shallots, garlic, fennel, and chili flakes. Sauté until translucent, fragrant, and tender—about 5 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, and sauté another 3 minutes.
Add the pastis, and reduce.
Add the wine, and reduce.
- Add the saffron, the mussels, and the clams, and raise the heat to high. Cover, and steam the seafood until it opens—about 5 minutes. Shake in the cold butter to make the sauce creamy.
Toss in the fennel fronds and chervil and serve immediately.
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Pastis and Persillade Stuffed Mussels
Get the whole story at Serious Eats.
Traditional moules-frites are so popular that we often forget their equally delicious cousins: moules-farcies, or stuffed mussels, broiled in the oven and served something like clams casino.
Persillade is a traditional mix of parsley and often garlic, and it is the way I have most frequently encountered stuffed mussels. Sometimes they come with a broiled crust of Parmesan latticed over the top, but in this rendition, I lighten up the flavors with a splash of anise-d Pastis. The butter and the Pastis, under the hot sun of the broiler, collapse down into the half-shell mussels, as the garlic softens and sweetens and the crumbs crust into molehills of flavor.
Roquefort Roasted Broccoli
I have always felt that vegetables are the neglected children of dinnertime. Underloved, underattended, and, unlike children, underwhelming—in most cases.
Having grown up as a vegetarian for twelve years, I learned to appreciate the gilded vegetable. At a restaurant in Monaco, I still remember the ratatouille that was cut up into perfect travel-sized dice, each cooked separately and appropriately, and amalgamated into Provençal perfection. And “isn’t it romantic” when the pariah steals the show—like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, or My Fair Lady, or Funny Face, or any movie she ever made? Vegetables may appear scrawny and from the wrong side of the supermarket aisle, but with a bit of finesse, they become the belle of the ball.
Watermelon and Toasted Goat Cheese Salad
I am not at all opposed to themed food. Last year’s Valentine’s column was a traditional Coeur à la Crème, a heart of sweet cream surrounded in a sweet strawberry sauce. This year, my Cupid’s arrow is watermelon salad with baby arugula, honey-balsamic syrup, and torched goat cheese—something pink, which may lead down the road to something blue if you play this Sunday night right.
The key to romance is to share a meal, but to not eat anything too filling—or too smelly (hence a salad, with no onions, no garlic). This salad is composed of planks of sweet pink watermelon, with baby arugula tucked gently in between the Napoleon layers, drizzled with a balsamic reduction sweetened with honey, and then topped with olive oil, fleur de sel, black pepper, and goat cheese, which you then set aflame with a kitchen torch until it boils and bubbles and turns soft and charred. It’s magnificent—plus I just used the words “pink,” “baby,” “honey,” and “aflame” all in one sentence to describe it. How much more romantic can you get?