For the love of figs…

Since we will be in Greece in a couple of days, I guess Pablo’s menu this week will consist of a lot of his favorite things: tomatoes, feta, cucumber, olives, lamb, squid, bread & olive oil… and possibly FIGS.

To set us off on the right foot for this journey, our dear friend Minou invited us to join her and her dogs for an afternoon of fig picking, fig cooking and eating. And that we did…

This morning, the song “All we need is love” came on as I was watching my son play, and point, and babble and explore his little world. Watching him, thinking of how complicated life can be, of the time some lessons take to learn, the naivete of that song struck me. For as much as I appreciate the sentiment the song conveys, that sense of “yeah, I guess it all boils down to that”, my experience so far has been that it just isn’t so. We need way more than love, though I suppose it is the very first thing we need. Just like in cooking, love is the first of the ingredients, but a great many other things go into a dish for it to make our taste buds, tummies and souls feel good.

Contemplating the complexities of life for a few seconds made me even more thankful for all the very loving people we have, those in our life here, and those we will share joyful moments with on our journey. One of the people I am most thankful for, is our wonderful Minou. Friend, aunt, sister, godmother, confidante, cheerleader, supporter, listener, laugh partner, tear partner, dance partner, dog whisperer and beloved Minou. For the many joyful moments spent together, so many of them around lunches and dinners, merci.

Today, around figs picked from her tree, we talked and laughed. We cooked. Oh and of course, we ate too.

From this day, I’d like to share two wonderful fig recipes. A fig, feta & mint salad which possibly creates the perfect bite with a combination of sweet, savory & tart and a great contrast of textures.

Then I went on to experiment with a sweet-savory fig tatin with Manchego cheese, which we savored with some slices of prosciutto San Daniele.

Here’s to eating well, living well and loving well.

Fig, feta & mint salad

Age for babies: 8-10 months, cut up in small pieces, feta and figs make nice finger foods, and it’s a good way to expose them to mint.

Serves 4

2 medium blocks of sheep’s milk Feta cheese
12 figs, washed and quartered
A handful of mint leaves, washed
Olive oil
Fresh ground pepper

Place the two blocks of Feta on a platter. Place the quartered figs on and around them.

Using scissors, cut the mint leaves and spread over the Feta and figs.

Drizzle with olive oil, and some fresh ground pepper.

Fig tatin with rosemary & Manchego

Age for baby: 10-12 months, cut up as finger food at first.

Serves 4

1 frozen puff pastry sheet*
12 figs, washed and cut in half
6 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 sprig of rosemary
3 oz of Manchego, in thin slices
Olive oil / Rosemary infused olive oil
Fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven at 375°F.

With a rolling pin and a little flour, flatten your puff pastry so that it is bigger than the pie pan you will use.

Sauté the figs, skin side up, in a large frying pan with some rosemary-infused olive oil for about 3 minutes, sprinkling some fresh ground pepper over them. Remove from heat and set aside.

Pour the balsamic vinegar in the frying pan, adding some fresh rosemary, and cook on low heat until it becomes syrupy, a few minutes (you should end up with about 3 tbsp). Remove from heat.

Butter a round pie pan. Pour the balsamic reduction in. Place the figs, skin side up. Add the Manchego slices.

Cover the pie pan with the puff pastry, tucking the dough on the sides inside the pie pan.

Bake for about 35 Min. Let cool to lukewarm, and then turn it over onto a plate for serving.

Serve with some slices of prosciutto.

*Being French, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that making puff pastry from scratch really scares me. I will probably get to it some day… In the meantime, I use the pre-made puff pastry sold frozen here. (The French actually commonly use pre-made puff pastry, readily available in all supermarkets). All you have to do is leave it out for about 15 minutes, then unfold it onto some flour and let it sit a few more minutes, until soft enough to be manipulated and worked with the rolling pin.

For the love of peas in a pod…

Working with what you’ve got. And marvel at the beauty of simple things. Two lessons that apply to life and to cooking. Never before had I realized the many valuable life lessons that can be learned, or rather practised, in the kitchen. Working with what you’ve got… well, that’s never been an easy one for me. I saw this quote recently that says it all: “What screws us up most in life, is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” Funny how well this applies to cooking, isn’t it? Trying to follow a recipe religiously and match some perfect picture in a cookbook just never seems to work. It’s a skill, to be able to trust oneself enough to let go of the picture in your head, and follow your gut. If that skill can be practised – and taught – in the safe environment that is the kitchen, all the better.

This recipe came out of both these lessons. I have been in Los Angeles for 15 years and had never before seen fresh English peas for sale. Maybe I just wasn’t looking. But imagine my thrill when I saw them for sale at the Farmer’s Market last week.  And the simplest recipe was the only way to let their perfection shine.

Shelling fresh peas really takes me back to my childhood in France. Their peculiar smell, the fun of shelling, of opening the pod and discovering those plump little green pearls inside. Eating a few raw, just because. Seeing Pablo go through that experience with us here, and gobble them up raw, made my soul smile.

Speaking of souls smiling, I wanted to share an excerpt from a wonderful French book translated into English under the title We Could Almost Eat Outside – An appreciation of life’s small pleasures by Phillipe Delerm. It is collection of short stories, one of which is called “Helping shell peas”. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s a teaser:

Soon an invisible metronome will lull you into the cool hypnotic rhythm of shelling peas. The operation itself is deliciously simple. Use your thumb to press down on the join and the pod instantly opens itself, docile and yielding. For reluctant peas who disguise their youth with shriveled skin, use the nail of your index finger to make an incision that will rip open the green and expose all the moisture and firm flesh beneath. You can send those little green balls rolling out at the push of a finger. The last one is unbelievably tiny. Sometimes, you can’t resist crunching it. It tastes bitter, but fresh as an eleven o’clock kitchen where the water runs cold and the vegetables have just been peeled – nearby, next to the sink, naked carrots glisten on the dish towel where they’ve been left to dry.

There’s a lot to be said about fresh peas, vs. frozen or canned. They just don’t compare. So sure, you could go with that can of peas and carrots in your pantry, or, should you be lucky enough to come across some fresh peas in the pod, you could make this simple dish, and believe me, you will savor the difference with every bite.

Fresh peas and carrots jardinière

Recipe by my mother

Serves 4

Age for babies: I would give this at 6-8 months pureed, and 8-10 months for a great finger food.

2 lbs fresh English peas in the pod, shelled
1 bunch of new carrots, peeled and sliced
12 pearl onions (4 red, 4 yellow, 4 white, peeled but left whole)
2 or 3 leaves of butter lettuce
3 sprigs of thyme (remove stems, use only the tiny leaves)
2 garlic cloves (peeled, left whole)
1 oz butter
Salt & pepper

Melt the butter in a pot (don’t let it get brown). Throw the peas in the warm butter and stir until the peas have become bright green.

Then add the sliced carrots, pearl onions, lettuce, garlic cloves. Add salt and pepper and stir.

Add 1/2 cup of warm water, cover and let simmer on low heat for 35-40 minutes. (Check that there’s enough water during cooking, there should always be a bit of water at the bottom, if not, add another 1/2 cup of hot water.)

It goes very well with meats like lamb or duck.

A cherry soup with goat cheese recipe

Sit down for a good dinner with a few French people, and by the
time the cheese course comes around, the conversation will often get either
cerebral or gastronomical. A little bit like this blog, which lately has really
felt like an ongoing and lovely cyber-meal with friends from all parts (you
guys). And I have been kind of cerebral in my posts lately, so I’m feeling the
need to switch gears to talk about something that has always brought much rejoicing
in our lives, namely: goat cheese.

I’ve had a long love affair with goat cheese. When I was a
child in Normandy
in the 80s, some of the most memorable foods I can remember eating and loving
were oysters at Christmas time, my mother’s green (watercress) soup, and the
small round goat cheese in the blue box named Chevrita, which I could easily
have eaten in one sitting if left to my own devices.

Fast forward 30 years later. Pregnant with Pablo, I had very
few cravings… but I did have one in particular. You guessed it, goat cheese
again. In every form!

So, unsurprisingly, since he has been feasting on it his entire existence via amniotic fluid (isn’t it amazing fetuses can taste flavors at
21 weeks? The education of taste starts early! Interesting article on this here), then via breastmilk, and shortly
thereafter, whenever he could put his own little hands on it, Pablo adores goat
cheese. Not just mixed in other things, but straight. And not just the milder
chèvre (fresh goat cheese), but the hardcore, aged, gamy-tasting ones too.  The fact that goat cheese is really healthy
and easier to digest than cow dairy, is almost irrelevant, really. Goat and
sheep’s milk cheeses are the first I gave him when I introduced cheese around 8
months old.
Since I moved to the US some 16 years ago, the cheese
has improved a lot here. In variety and quality (thank you, Trader Joe’s and Whole
Foods). Of course, it’s not quite the myriad of artisan cheesemakers found all over France… and we often treat ourselves with imported French cheeses. But there’s
nothing like local artisan cheese. Last year, I came across these gorgeous,
irresistible goat cheeses made by Vermont Creamery and it was love at first
taste. (I had mentioned them for those baked apples with goat cheese).
This is the real deal. I swear, a bite of their Bonne Bouche transports me right back to France. 
So you imagine my delight when Vermont Creamery contacted me recently to
1/ let me know they read and like my blog (so cool), 2/ ask me if I wanted to participate
in their Kids & Kids campaign by creating some kid-friendly recipes with
goat cheese (even cooler), 3/ kindly offered me some samples for inspiration (full
disclosure!) ;-).

This challenge has certainly gotten my culinary juices
going, so I’ll be happily sharing some goat cheese recipes of all kinds in the
coming weeks, and I’ll be hosting my first giveaway, so stay tuned for a chance
to win some delicious cheeses! 

We went cherry picking last weekend in the LeonaValley and came back with pounds of cherries, in dire need of another purpose than to just
be devoured on the spot. Thus this successful experiment of a gazpacho. 

Outside of the fact that Pablo loves to say the word “gazpacho” (and who doesn’t?), he now loves to help make it (a toddler friendly recipe). And he loves to drink it. It’s easy to make, nutritious and vitamin-packed, delicious and fun. Need I continue or are you sold?

The sweet and tangy flavors of this cold soup and the incredibly creamy and delicate herbed chèvre Vermont Creamery makes, were truly a match made in heaven. Ever so flavorful spoonfuls of summer.

Cherry gazpacho with herbed goat cheese

Prep time: 30 mn (pitting cherries isn’t for the impatient.)

Age for babies: 10-12 months.

10 oz cherries (I used a mix of rainier and bing)

2 very ripe heirloom tomatoes

2-3 sprigs of dill, stems removed.

2 tbsp hazelnut meal (or almond meal)

Freshly ground pepper to taste

About 4 oz herbed goat cheese (plain works too)

Prep the first 8 ingredients: starting with washing and pitting the cherries; wash, seed and cut up the peppers;  peel and dice the cucumber; wash, core and cut up the tomatoes; dice the red onion, wash and grossly mince the herbs.

Place it all in the blender and add the hazelnut meal, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Blend on high until very smooth (longer than you think you have to, otherwise you’ll feel the cherry skins.)

Place the blender pitcher in the fridge for a couple of hours to chill.

Before serving, give it one last whirl, and pour in bowls. Add crumbled goat cheese on top, and some dill or basil for garnish.

Scrumptious Baklava

Baklava is a rich, decedent desert made with made with phyllo, almonds/walnuts, honey, and lots of love. This recipe has been in Eva’s family for years. We hope you enjoy!

Ingredients:

For the phyllo

  • 1 box of phyllo (you can find this in the refrigerator section of your local grocery store)
  • Half a pound of unsalted butter (you can substitute the butter for margarine or corn oil if you like)
  • 4 cups of crushed almonds/walnuts
  • 1/3 cup of sugar
  • 1/3 cup of breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup of cognac
  • 1 tablespoon of cinnamon
  • The peel of one orange

For the syrup

  • 1 8-ounce glass of sugar
  • 2 cup of water
  • 1 cup of honey
  • Half an orange or lemon
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • A pinch of cloves
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice

More details outlined in the video:

Mix the nuts, cinnamon, and cognac together in a blender. Once blended, put the mixture aside.

Melt your butter in the microwave. Get out a large pan (I like to use a 16 x 14 inches pan) and a brush. Brush the bottom and sides of your pan with the melted butter.

Remove the phyllo from the package, lay it flat on your countertop and cover the phyllo with a slightly damp cloth to keep it from drying out as you work.

Place your first layer of phyllo on your pan and butter it. Repeat this 5 times.

Once you have about 5 layers of phyllo, pour about a cup of your nut mixture over the phyllo.

Place another layer of phyllo over the nuts and butter the sheet. Repeat this once more. If you like, you could crumple the phyllo rather than place it flat on the mixture, doing so will give your baklava a bit more body.

Add another cup of your mixture over the phyllo. Be sure to spread the nut mixture evenly.

Add another two sheets of phyllo (be sure to butter each layer). Now add the rest of your mixture.
Add another sheet of phyllo over the mixture and butter. Repeat until you have used up all your phyllo and, again, be sure to butter each layer.

Using your brush tuck in the edges of the phyllo into the pan. Butter the top layer of phyllo heavily.

Before you put the baklava in the oven you need to cut it, but be gentle! The knife should only pierce the top layers of phyllo, don’t cut all the way to the bottom. Cut the baklava into 3 strips and then cut horizontally across those strips. You should have squares. Now cut diagonal lines across the square to make diamond shaped pieces. Before you place the pan in the over sprinkle a little water over the phyllo.

Bake the phyllo in the oven at 325 degrees for an hour.

Once it is baked, remove it from the oven and let it cool.

Now you need to make the syrup which will be poured over the baklava. To make the syrup you need to mix the sugar, water, and honey together in a medium size saucepan. Add half a lemon (or orange), about 5-6 cloves, and 2 cinnamon sticks and bring it to a boil. Let it boil for about 15-20 minutes. To see if the syrup is ready you can test it by placing a small drop of the syrup on your stove-top and feel it with your finger. If it has a nice body to it, it’s ready. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to help it stay nice and smooth after it cools down.

Once the syrup has cooled down a little, pour it over the phyllo. Remember, either the phyllo or the syrup has to be cool. If both are still hot, the baklava will be destroyed.

Let it sit for a few hours, or preferably overnight, and serve!!