White food, white wine... I don’t think that’s a rule, or even maybe a suggestion. But some of my favorite French winter dishes are white and each calls for a white wine that can not just stand up to cream and to garlic, to salt cod and scallops and embrace them, but also to bring back the experience of a particular moment in France when food, wine, and company conspired to create something magical.
Salt Cod Brandade
Made from the lowly salt cod, mashed potatoes, and cream, brandade can be found all over France today, but once it was rarely found outside of its traditional home in Provence. I was taught to make it there by a man who, above all else, loved good food and good wine. He made sure I carefully picked out any bones or bits of skin from the pre-soaked and poached fish that might otherwise ruin the dish. He brought the hot gratin dish directly from the oven to the table, along with a basket of toasted baguette slices, and explained that the best wine to have was a white wine from Cassis where the vineyards slope to the sea.
The varietal blend, he continued, was crisp, yet rounded and aromatic, founded on Marsanne and Ugni Blanc, ideal with the Mediterranean fish. He may have exaggerated, but a glass of Cassis Blanc with Brandade de Morue does make me feel close to the sea and, once again, makes vivid my memory of my friend that day. But Cassis Blanc is hard to come by because its production is limited and very little gets exported. I order it from Kermit Lynch in Berkeley. But if not Cassis, I look for a Rhone-style wine that has some Marsanne in the blend.
1 pound salt cod fillet
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch thick slices
½ to ⅔ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup freshly made bread crumbs
Place the salt cod in a large bowl and add cold water to cover. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, changing the water 3 or 4 times.
Over medium-high heat, place a frying pan filled with cold water. Bring to just a simmer and gently poach the cod until it flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon or spatula remove the fish to a plate. Remove the skin and discard.
Flake the fish, discarding any bones. Set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil and minced garlic just until warm. Turn off the heat and leave the oil to infuse.
Place the potatoes in a saucepan. Cover by 2 inches with water. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a knife, about 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and put them in a mixing bowl. Add the salt cod, and using a hand or stand mixer or a potato masher, mash the fish and potatoes together to make a thick past. Do not use a food processor as this will make the brandade gooey. Pour the olive oil and its garlic bits into the mix and stir. Now, add the cream and black pepper, mixing or mashing until smooth. Taste for salt and add if desired.
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees. Butter a gratin or other baking dish just large enough to hold the brandade in a layer 1 ½ inches thick.
Bake until nearly bubbling and the top is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve hot with slices of toasted baguette.
Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 to 3 as a main course
Seared Scallops and Endive à l’Orange
It was a December night in the dining room of the centuries-old La Mirande Hotel in Avignon. My friend and I were seated near the wood-burning fire, reminiscing over our many years of friendship and shared adventures as we sipped Champagne. We both ordered the Coquilles St. Jacques for our first course. The dish arrived. The scallops were perfectly seared – golden on the outside, smooth as butter on the inside. The endive, braised in butter, was delicately balanced between sweet and bitter. All rested on a film of orange scented buerre blanc.
We had asked the sommelier to choose a wine to pair with the scallops, and he served us a blend of Marsanne and Roussane from the Luberon. It was a match made in heaven. Tablas Creek Esprit Blanc de Tablas from California’s Central Coast is a blend of Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and several other varieties with a voluptuosness that, when served with these scallops, takes me back to that evening in Provence.
For the Belgian endive:
4 Belgian endive chicons, quartered lengthwise and core removed
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon sea salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup water
For the sauce:
Juice of ½ orange
⅛ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
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1 tablespoon minced orange zest
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the scallops:
16 large sea scallops, about 1 ½ pounds, preferably ‘dry’, not soaked in brine
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
The Belgian endive:
In a sauté pan, over medium high heat, combine the sugar, lemon juice, butter, salt, pepper and water with the quartered Belgian endive. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer, braising until the endives are tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove with tongs and set aside on a paper towel lined platter in a single layer.
In a small saucepan, over medium-high heat, bring the orange juice to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and stir in the salt and the cream. Simmer, stirring, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Strain the sauce through a Chinoise or a fine wire mesh sieve.
Return to the heat, add the zest, simmer 1 to 2 minutes, then stir in 2 tablespoons of butter. Add more butter if desired. Cover and keep warm
With paper towels, pat the scallops very dry. Season them with the salt and pepper. In a large frying pan over medium high heat, heat the olive oil and the butter. When the pan is starting to smoke, add the scallops (you made need to work in batches but do not overcrowd) and sear until a ¼ inch of the scallop is opaque and a golden crust has formed, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn and repeat on the other side. The center should still be translucent. Do not overcook.
To serve, divide the endive quarters among 4 dinner plates. Top with 4 scallops, and drizzle ¼ of the sauce around the base of the endives.
Poulet a la Crème
This chicken dish is decadently rich and redolent of farmhouse cooking from the north of France, where cows feed on the abundant green grass, and milk and cream are plentiful. My strongest memory of it is associated with an out of the way bistro in Paris, where I was eating alone on a rainy night. It was the special on the menu and was accompanied by fluffy mashed potatoes. It sounded cozy and homey and I ordered it.
The chef-owner, short and smartly dressed in chef’s whites came out from the kitchen and suggested I have a glass of Bourgogne Blanc with my chicken, compliments of the house. It was a lovely gesture that brightened my evening. The wine was crisp and light, yet rich, partnering with the creamy chicken, neither overwhelming nor arguing with it. Later, I found this recipe for it, and I make it once or twice each winter, and always open a bottle of a Bourgogne Blanc or an unoaked California Chardonnay, with a silent toast to the man who was so kind to me.
1 chicken, about 3 pounds, cut into serving pieces
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
7 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced tarragon
Season the chicken with the salt, pepper, and cayenne. Over medium high heat, melt 5 tablespoons of the butter in a sauté pan or a deep skillet. When the butter foams, add the chicken pieces and sauté until golden, about 10 minutes, turning often. Cover, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook until the chicken is tender, about another 30 minutes. Remove the chicken to a warmed platter and cover lightly with foil. Increase the heat to high, pour in 1/2 cup of the cream, and scrape up any clinging bits. Set aside.
In a small bowl, using a fork, mix together the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the flour to make a roux.
Place the roux in a saucepan over medium heat and simmer slowly, stirring, until well blended and there is no taste of flour, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining cup of cream and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Pour the creamy juices from the frying pan into the saucepan. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as necessary. Pour the hot cream sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with tarragon.
Serves 4 to 6.