One of the best parts of travel for me is the food. My memories are anchored by where and what I ate. Once I’m back home, I try to recreate some of the dishes I had because, if I succeed, diving deep into memory and I’m once again in another place,. Sometimes I ask the restaurant for the recipe; other times I simply try to recreate it from my recollection of what it looked and tasted like.
Rabbit Braised in Cider
(Lapin au Cidre d’Auvergne)
For example, on a recent trip to Reims, I had Lapin au Cidre d’Auvergne for lunch at the Café du Palais, an Art Deco bistro in the heart of Reims. The banquettes were red velvet, the chandeliers crystal, and scattered throughout the room were numerous silver buckets of iced Champagne, waiting to be poured. I asked for the recipe and it was given to me albeit in short-hand chef form and for 20 servings. At home, the ingredients were all easy to come by except the rabbit, so I substituted chicken. It called for honey and I have plenty of that from a beekeeper friend, and the requisite herbs were in my garden. I purchased a bottle of craft- brewed hard apple cider from my local market. One night, I made the dish for dinner from the recipe below that I adapted from the restaurant version, and I served it with mounds of buttery mashed potatoes. It tasted just like being back in Reims, and each bite brought back the memory of that experience.
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 whole rabbit legs or chicken legs or 4 skin-on, bone-in legs and thighs
Extra virgin olive oil
6 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 cup chopped yellow onions
3 carrots, peeled and cut into thin rounds
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
4 cups hard apple cider
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons raisins
1 tablespoon flour
2 apples such as Granny Smith or Golden Delicious, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch thick slices
Season the chicken with half of the salt and half the pepper. In a frying pan, over medium high heat, warm 1 ½ tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter foams, add the chicken pieces, and sauté until golden, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove the chicken to a bowl.
In a heavy bottomed casserole or Dutch oven with a lid, over medium high heat, heat 2 more tablespoons of butter. When it is hot, stir in 1 tablespoon of honey and add the chopped onions, sautéing until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, cider, vinegar, thyme, bay leaves, garlic, and raisins, followed by the chicken. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer until the chicken begins to pull away from the bone and is tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove the chicken and set aside. Remove the thyme and bay leaves and discard.
Increase the heat to high and, stirring, reduce the sauce to 1 ½ cups. Combine 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter with the flour and stir into the sauce. Keep stirring as the sauce thickens. When the sauce has thickened, return the chicken to the sauce, and warm, over medium heat to heat the chicken through, about 4 minutes.
While the sauce is reducing, in a large frying pan over medium high heat, heat the remaining 1 1 /2 tablespoons of butter. When it foams, stir in the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons of honey, add the apple slices and sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Turn and sauté the other side until golden, another 2 to 3 minutes.
To serve, place a whole chicken leg on each of 4 dinner plates and divide the sauce equally over them. Garnish each serving with an equal amount of the sautéed apples.
Tomato and Zucchini ‘Cake’ with Squid, Basil-infused Olive Oil and Chorizo
Gateau de Tomates et Courgettes, Encornets Rotis, Huile de Basilic et Chorizo
On the same trip, I visited Lille, once a thriving and powerful industrial city, now reinventing itself as a cultural center. Its old town, Vieux Lille, is full of twisting, medieval streets lined with narrow houses, small shops, restaurants and patch worked with small squares and patios. One such patio opens onto the door of Le Lion Brossu, and on up the stairs is the intimate, brick-walled restaurant very softly lit with candles. I was seated next to a window looking out over its flower-filled window box to the street below at twilight. The setting was so lovely and so serene, I’m sure I would have liked whatever I’d chosen from the menu. While still deciding on the menu, the wine we’d ordered, a Sancerre, arrived with a platter of tapenade toasts, a Provencal specialty, but also popular all over France. Intrigued by the combination of flavors, I opted for Gateau de Tomates et Courgettes, Encornet Rotis, Huile de Basilic et Chorizo for my first course. I was delighted when it arrived, a juicy, room-temperature stack of confit tomatoes and thick roasted slices of zucchini, along with two roasted cuttlefish (a member of the squid family), all nicely drizzled with a basil-chorizo vinaigrette and garnished with curls of crispy tomato skin.
Once again, I asked for the recipe, knowing I’d have to make a substitution in order to create it at home. Instead of cuttlefish, I substituted the readily available California calamari. I had the basil, zucchini and tomatoes in my garden.
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I savored my memories of Lille and that special dinner at Le Lion Brossu as I tucked into the glamorous, yet simple, dish. It makes the perfect beginning for many a summer meal.
1 cup fresh basil leaves plus 4 – 8 sprigs for garnish
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
6 Calamari tubes split lengthwise and cut crosswise into strips
4 Roma tomatoes
2 medium zucchini
For the vinaigrette:
½ of the basil-infused olive oil, about 3 tablespoons
1 ½ to 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
½ small red onion, minced, about ¼ cup
Pinch of salt
2 ounces Spanish chorizo, cut into small cubes, about ¼ inch
Two hours before ready to serve, in a bowl, combine the basil leaves, olive oil and sea salt. Set aside half to use for the vinaigrette. Place the calamari in the bowl with the remaining basil-olive oil mixture, and turn several times. Let marinate for two hours.
Raise the oven to 225 degrees. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and brush them with a little of the marinade. Place cut side down on a baking sheet and roast until the skin loosens and the tomatoes are soft, but still hold their shape, about 40 minutes. Side aside.
Preheat an oven to 325 degrees. Cut the zucchini lengthwise in strips a scant ½ inch thick, then cut them in half. Place them on a baking sheet and brush them with a little of the marinade, turning once. Roast until golden brown on both sides, turning once, about 30 to 40 minutes. Set aside.
To make the vinaigrette:
Combine the remaining basil oil with the sherry vinegar, minced red onion, pinch of salt and the chorizo. Stir to mix well. Set aside.
Remove the skins from the tomato halves and place a half on each of 4 plates. Top with a piece of zucchini, then tomato again, then another slice of zucchini.
Drizzle each with some of the vinaigrette, reserving a little.
In a sauté pan over high heat, sauté the calamari strips, just until opaque and the edges curl, a scant minute.
Garnish each vegetable stack with an equal amount of the calamari, and drizzle over the remaining oil. Garnish each with reserved basil leaves.
Serve 4 as a first course
Tapenade is so easy to make and it’s always well-received. Make your own toasts from sliced baguette, triangles of pain de mie, or purchase them, ready to use.
2 cups pitted oil-cured black olives, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 anchovy filets
½ to 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
½ tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all the ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor or blender and process until well mixed, about 2 minutes. While continuing to process, slowly drizzle in about half the olive oil to create a stiff paste. Gradually add more olive oil until you reach the desired consistency for spreading. How much oil will depend somewhat on the amount of oil in the olives. Makes about 1 ½ cups.