Thursday, September 20, 2007

Keep it simple: mini heirloom tomato salad

I'm leaving today for France and I suspect that tomatoes' season will be over when I'm back. That is the reason why I could not resist to buy these 5 beautiful "mini" heirloom tomatoes yesterday evening when I was shopping at Whole Foods. They are locally grown and bear the poetic names of Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Costoluto Genovese and Yellow Teardrop.

I like to serve these small wonders in the most simple way. I slice them, sprinkle some sea salt and drizzle an olive oil-Jerez vinaigrette on the top. No tossing, no dicing, no nothing: just the ingredient in its purest and primal shape. This is one my favorite salad because each type of tomato tastes different from sweet to acidic or tart and they form a perfect combination with the vinaigrette. In a nutshell, it is my way to celebrate the fruits of the summer and try to make it last a bit longer.


5 heirloom tomatoes

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp Jerez Vinegar

Maldon sea salt

Black pepper

1. Slice each tomato and sprinkle a little sea salt on each slice.

2. Combine the olive oil, vinegar, a little sea salt and black pepper in a bowl. Whip to emulsify.

3. Drizzle the vinaigrette on the tomato slices.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Brandade-stuffed pimientos with tomato-piquillo salsa

Piquillos Rellenos

How ironic life can be! I spent the entire previous post praising Ducasse's Grand Livre de Cuisine "Mediterrannee" and the first recipe published on this blog is an adaptation of a dish from the Grand Livre de Cuisine "Bistrots, Brasseries et Restaurants de Tradition". Regardless of the source, the flavors of this dish remain definitely Mediterranean (pimientos rellenos are served in most tapas bars across Spain) although I must say there is a pronounced Basque touch to it (pimientos are grown in Navarre and espelette pepper, used in the salsa, is produced in the French Basque Country).

This is a dish I first made last year and that I found quite satisfying at the time. The contrast between the sweet peppers and the saltier brandade really worked wonders with the salsa. It reminded me so much of the days I had spent in San Sebastian a few years ago. But that night my wife was traveling in Boston or some place close I guess. And as a meal is not really what it should be when not shared with your significant other, I had told her I would cook that again. It took me more than a year to do so. However, when I stumbled upon glass jars of pimientos del piquillo in Whole Foods yesterday, it reminded me I had a promise to honor. As cod also looked extremely fresh at the fish stand, I knew this had to be THE night for stuffed pimientos.

It is obviously preferable to use fresh pimientos and roast them on the gas burner or under the broil until they are blackened and blistered. Then, you let them rest in a plastic bag for 10 minutes so you can peel them much more easily. Unfortunately, I have never found fresh pimientos in the US so I use those in jars. As they are preserved in olive olive oil, they act as a nice replacement. Just make sure you buy pimientos from Lodosa (otherwise they would not be real piquillos and obviously would not taste as such).

As for the brandade, a Nimes' specialty consisting of mashed potatoes mixed with cod, garlic parsley and olive oil, you should try to use salt cod (the famous Spanish bacalao or morue in French) as it really tastes better. But, once again, the fishmonger at Whole Foods has only "regular" cod, which still works fine, though. Note that the original recipe of brandade contains milk or cream. Feel free to add some if you want to obtain creamier taste and texture.

I also suggest you add a pinch of espelette pepper, that you can source here, to the salsa. Tastier than black pepper and milder than cayenne with a smoky touch. You won't regret it. Buen provecho!

Ingredients (for 12 stuffed pimientos):

2 jars of pimientos del piquillo (or 24 fresh pimientos roasted and peeled)

2 medium Yukon Gold Potatoes

0.4 lbs of cod

3 garlic cloves (crushed and finely chopped)

2 tbsp of parsley

1/4 cup Heavy cream

1.5 cup Tomato puree

Olive oil


Espelette pepper

1. Make sure you remove all the seeds from the 12 piquillos that will be stuffed.

2. Place the potatoes in a sauce pan. Cover with water. Take to a boil until cooked through. Do the same with the cod.

3. Crumble the cod and saute it in olive oil for 3-4 minutes with the minced garlic and the parsley.

4. Peel the potatoes and mashed them. Mix with the cod, garlic and parsley. Add olive oil and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Season with salt to taste. This is your brandade.

5. Put the brandade in a freezer bag. Cut the tip and use it as a pastry bag to stuff the piquillos.

6. Prepare the salsa by mixing with a blender together the cream, 6-7 coarsely chopped piquillos and heated tomato puree. Season with salt and Espelette pepper to taste.

7. Preheat the oven at 425 degrees F. Put the stuffed piquillos on a baking tray and sprinkle them with olive oil. Put into the oven for 5 minutes. Serve.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Le Grand Livre de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse Mediterrannee: a new reference for Mediterranean cooks

Grand Livre de Cuisine Mediterranee

Before becoming a successful businessman and acclaimed globe-trotter restaurateur, Alain Ducasse was first and foremost a brilliant interpret of haute Mediterranean cuisine. Although not raised under the sun of the French Riviera (he's originally from Southwestern France), he apprenticed under legendary chef Roger Verge at Le Moulin de Mougins where he fell in love with the flavors of provencale cuisine. He would soon achieve the status of master of this genre himself by getting the much coveted Michelin awards first at La Terrasse of the Juana Hotel in Juan-Les-Pins (2 stars in 1984) and then at Le Louis XV, the restaurant of the Hotel de Paris in Monaco (3 stars in 1990). He would obviously not stop there and the rest is history.

However, fifty years from now, Ducasse may well be remembered not only for the quality of his cuisine or his financial success but rather for his ability to pass his knowledge on to the next generation of chefs and appoint the brightest at the helm of his flagship 3-star restaurants. Franck Cerutti belongs to this category of former pupils that have grown into master chefs. Born and bred in Nice, trained not only with Ducasse but also with Maximin and at Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence before becoming chef de cuisine of Le Louis XV, he is a passionate, gifted and dedicated creator of haute Riviera cuisine that he has almost come to personify according to Ducasse.

Needless to say that a cookbook on Mediterranean cuisine directed by these two men is much more than a cookbook. "Mediterrannee" actually belongs to the "Grands Livres de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse" series whose first three volumes were dealing with French haute cuisine, pastry and bistro / brasserie food, respectively. 1000 pages-plus thick, each of them looks more like an encyclopedia than your typical cookbook and contains elaborate recipes that require a good technical background, an extensive use of fond, jus, ... as well as time consuming prep work. They also give a unique insight into the work of other talented Ducasse's proteges such as Jean-Francois Piege, Didier Elena, Benoit Witz or Frederic Robert. In any event, they are an infinite source of knowledge for cooks of any level.

In keeping with its predecessors, "Mediterranee" is a tome. Ducasse's crew, helped by a team of historians, has gathered 500 recipes, some of them forgotten, spanning the whole western Mediterranean from France to Spain, Italy, Sicily, Malta, Morocco... And the book really succeeds in capturing the culinary unity of the region while also highlighting all the local specificities. Recipes are ranked by ingredient from A like Agneau to Y like Yaourt with a whole section dedicated to desserts and contributed by Olivier Berger, the pastry chef at Le Louis XV.

Each dish has been refined using classical technique and becomes a little jewel in the hand of Ducasse's band of artists as evidenced by this perfectly executed and beautifully plated ratatouille. Although demanding, recipes are well articulated and each process is carefully detailed (prep, cooking, finishing touches, plating, ...). Each recipe also comes with a header describing the history and origin of the dish as well as gorgeous pictures.

Above and beyond classics such as Salade Nicoise, Daube de boeuf, Caponata or Ajo Blanco, "Mediterranee" also includes recipes of dishes created by Cerutti and served at Le Louis XV. Cerutti revisits specialties like farcis a la nicoise or risotto a la truffe noire and turns them into masterpieces. Behind an apparent simplicity, each dish shows a flawless execution and the ever-present respect of the ingredients. This translates into "essential pleasures" as Cerutti likes to describe them.

The only weaknesses of "Mediterrannee"? Its price (120 EUR) and the absence of English translation for the time being. However, if you're lucky enough to afford it / receive it as a gift and speak a little French, I can promise it will become a favorite among your books. Like a bible, mine stays atop my bedside table and I keep coming back to it over and over again to find inspiration or simply peace of mind before sleeping.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sunday dinner's good surprise: Vieux Telegraphe, La Crau, 2003

Vieux Telegraphe

Every time my friend Bertrand joins us for dinner, he brings over a good bottle of wine. But Bertrand and I share the same weakness (and I'm not talking about wine here): we are both kind of last-minute guys. I usually make a decision about what to cook a couple of hours before dinner. He usually buys the above-mentioned and, more often than not expansive, bottle only a few minutes before taking the cab heading to my place. Since he has no idea of what we are going to eat and he must cope with the urgency of making a selection in a wine shop he does not know, this often results in very surprising food / wine pairings.

Yesterday was not an exception to this rule. I had planned to cook seabass with braised fennel (without telling Bertrand obviously). When he showed up and handed me the black plastic bag that contained the bottle, I knew I was in for a surprise. And a surprise it was: Vieux Telegraphe rouge 2003. The pairing with the upcoming dinner was far from obvious. But, as a native from Valence (France not Spain), I'm fond of Rhone wines and decided that we would drink it that night no matter what.

Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe
was founded in the 20's and is still owned by the same family : the Bruniers. The vineyards are located on the Plateau de la Crau (which looks like a stone field) next to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. As a typical Southern red Rhone, the blend is mainly made of Grenache Noir (65%) but also contains Mourvedre (15%), Syrah (15%) and Cinsault / other varieties for the remainder. The wine is imported in the US by Kermit Lynch who provides a unique insight on this domaine in his wonderful Adventures on the Wine Route.

But let's get back to our bottle. Like all his fellows red Chateauneufs, Vieux Telegraphe 2003 is a full-bodied, powerful wine high in alcohol. It boasts a beautiful ruby-colored robe, ripe plum / cherry aromas and a long fruity finish. Although it was still a little too young, as evidenced by its rugged tannins, we all really liked this wine. And after all, seabass and red Rhone did not form such an odd couple. By the way, I should have known that since the paupiette of black sea bass with a Syrah sauce served at Daniel had been such a revelation the first time I had it.

Just so you know, we have just finished the bottle tonight with a chickpea salad, canned sardines and Saint Nectaire cheese. I already hear some people say: too simple a food for such a wine. To me, it just tasted like home.

N.B.: recipes mentioned in this post will be published subsequently.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Next on Aioli & Co

I have been slower than initially planned to update this blog with new posts. The main reason is that I have ordered a new digital camera that I still have not received. This should be solved, hopefully, by the end of this week and I should be able to upload mouth-watering (let's be modest) pictures in addition to plain text. But before that, if that can help, I just wanted to provide a sneak preview of what's to come:

-There will definitely be a post about my favorite book on Mediterranean cuisine with a sophisticated twist. A bible that I suggest everyone passionate about the subject should buy.

-Ratatouille should be the first recipe since the dish is still in season and remains so emblematic of the region this blog deals with.

-I will then provide a detailed account (as well as pictures) of my upcoming trip to Southern France and Riviera. It should also include stories / pictures of farmers' markets, food served in some of the best restaurants of the region and whatever surprise this trip will offer.

-As the first stop of this trip will be Paris, I may also take advantage of staying there to write about a couple of culinary experiences.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Why another food blog?

If you are reading this, we certainly belong to the same "tribe": the food lovers who cannot spend a single day without having their dose of food reading (in addition of good food itself), be it on the internet or elsewhere. And the world wide web indeed caters to every foodie category and particular interest: wine, recipes, restaurant reviews, regional foods, ... We all have our favorites sources to get our daily fix: as customary, some of mine are shown on the right sidebar of this page. I encourage you to visit those sites and enjoy the writing of incredibly talented individuals.

That being said, for a native of Southern France like me, options are much more limited when it comes to fully satisfy my passion for Provencale and Nicoise cuisines. There are obviously plenty of web sites containing plain recipes (often without the attractive pictures and proper background you could expect though) but nothing really more than that. And as far as blogs written in English are concerned, not much at all. Hence the "aioli" project.

I obviously do not claim to be THE expert on this topic (Elizabeth David, Richard Olney and Patricia Wells, among others, have done quite a good job, right?). I do not either pretend to fully address such a vast subject, which would be far too ambitious. My goal is simply to provide, above and beyond recipes, a personal insight on food, wine, cookbooks, restaurants and chefs of this region.

From time to time (and more often than not I must say), I might also venture into discussions on other Mediterranean cuisines since they all share, to a large extent, the same common heritage. I may also write about my culinary adventures in New York or wherever travel may take me. In a nutshell, I would like to share my passion for good food in general with a focus on Mediterranean in particular.