A taste of France without venturing too far – The Denver Post

By David Tanis, The New York Times

Time moves along, and suddenly it’s fall. The weather is fine, and trees are sporting multicolored leaves. A different kind of hunger sets in, and you’re longing for the food of autumn — deeper, more robust fare.

For me, composing a three-course menu is always fun. You want a balance of flavors and textures and a certain progression. Start the meal with something light and bright, go for deeper notes in the main course, and end with something sweet, but not too sweet.

Inspiration can come from anywhere: a gander at the produce in the market, advice from a cookbook or two, a sudden craving. Sometimes I start with dessert and work backward. Or begin in the middle and then decide on the other courses.

This menu began with a memory.

I recalled a salad I’d had at a restaurant in Normandy, in northern France. That probably sounds grandiose, but I was living and working in Paris at the time, just getting out of town for the weekend to visit friends. We stopped for lunch at an unassuming little bistro, where there were only a few choices on the menu: salad or pâté to begin, duck confit or steak for the main (both with fried potatoes), and Camembert or an apple tart to finish. The place wasn’t at all fancy — this was basic, simple French fare.

But the salad called out to me, mostly because it seemed an unusual combination: beets and tomatoes. Both were dressed with a zippy vinaigrette, and they sat side by side on the plate, unadorned.

Fifteen years later, that salad became my starting point for this meal. Taking a bistro cue, I chose duck for the main course, but instead of a leg, I went with a pan-roasted breast, served with a mixture of wild and cultivated mushrooms. Dessert would be a classic French lemon tart with a touch of lime.

This menu is developed with six in mind, but it could be scaled down to serve four. And honestly, we made it for our household of two and enjoyed the leftovers for a couple of days. Or save it for a gathering in the future.

UNUSUAL BUT DELICIOUS

This salad is very satisfying in its simplicity. Bright and fresh, the earthy beets and sweet tomatoes are bathed in a gutsy dressing and served alongside one another. Although the combination may seem unusual, it is a fairly traditional one in France, and it is delicious. For the best flavor, choose ripe, juicy tomatoes and cook your own beets. Don’t be tempted to use the ho-hum precooked vacuum-packed type. To save time, feel free to cook the beets a day or two in advance.

Recipe: Beet and Tomato Salad With Scallions and Dill

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients

For the salad:

  • 1 pound golden beets (about 4 medium)
  • 1 pound ruby red beets (about 4 medium)
  • 1 pound ripe red or yellow tomatoes (about 3 medium)
  • 3 or 4 scallions, white and green parts, sliced crosswise
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped dill
  • Handful of arugula or watercress, for garnish (optional)

For the vinaigrette:

  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preparation

1. Cook the beets: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Scrub beets, and place in 2 baking dishes just large enough to hold them — golden beets in one, red in the other to keep colors from bleeding. Add an inch or so of water. Cover and bake until tender when probed with a skewer, about 1 hour. Set aside to cool. (Alternatively, boil or steam beets instead. Beets may be cooked several hours or up to 2 days in advance.)

2. Prepare the vinaigrette: Put vinegar and pinch of salt in a small bowl. Add mustard and stir with a fork to dissolve. Beat in olive oil to make the dressing thicken slightly. Add pepper to taste, plus a bit more salt, if necessary.

3. When the beets are cool enough to handle, rub off the skins. Cut golden beets in half lengthwise, then into 6 to 8 wedges, depending on the beet’s size. Repeat with red beets. Place in separate bowls, and season with salt. Slice tomatoes 1/2-inch thick, place in a separate bowl and season with salt.

4. Whisk vinaigrette, and pour over beets and tomatoes, dividing it evenly among the bowls. Toss gently and marinate for 10 minutes.

5. To serve, spoon the golden beets, red beets and tomatoes into distinct piles onto a large platter or serve in separate bowls. Top with scallions, and sprinkle with dill. Garnish with arugula or watercress, if using.

LIVELY WITH GARLIC AND PARSLEY

Magret is the term used for the large breasts of a Muscovy duck, found at many butcher shops and supermarkets or easily bought online. They weigh about 12 ounces each, enough for two portions, and are best cooked rare or medium-rare, like a steak — and the cooking methods are similar for both. (If using smaller duck breasts, reduce the cooking time accordingly.) The sauce is flavored with dried wild mushrooms, and a mixture of sautéed mushrooms is enlivened with garlic and parsley. Mashed squash or sweet potato would make a nice accompaniment.

Recipe: Pan-Roasted Duck With Wild Mushrooms

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup crumbled or chopped dried wild mushrooms, such as porcini or morels (about 1 ounce)
  • 3 (12-ounce) boneless, skin-on Muscovy duck breasts
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 large thyme sprig
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 pound sliced cultivated mushrooms, such as king trumpet, oyster or shiitake
  • 2 to 3 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

Preparation

1. Rinse dried mushrooms to remove sand or dirt and place in a bowl. Cover with boiling water and let steep for 30 minutes.

2. Lay duck breasts skin-side down on a cutting board. With your fingers, remove the thin tenderloins from the underside of each breast and reserve for sauce. With a sharp knife, trim away any gristle. Turn breasts skin-side up and trim excess fat from the edges. Score the skins in a diamond pattern. Season generously with salt and pepper, transfer to a plate and leave at cool room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Put olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the reserved tenderloins and brown well on both sides. Add butter and flour to pan, and cook, stirring, until mixture is lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add soaked mushrooms and soaking liquid, and stir well as sauce begins to thicken. Add wine, thyme and bay leaf, turn heat to low, and simmer gently until gravylike, but not too thick, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and discard tenderloins, thyme and bay leaf. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Keep warm. (Sauce may be prepared several hours or up to 2 days in advance.)

4. Set a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add duck breasts to skillet skin-side down and let sizzle. Lower heat to medium and cook for about 7 or 8 minutes, making sure skin doesn’t brown too quickly. (This will render fat and crisp the skin.) Turn breasts over and cook 3 minutes more for rare (thermometer should read 120 degrees), or 4 to 5 minutes for medium-rare (thermometer should read 125 degrees). Transfer to a warm platter and let rest for 10 minutes.

5. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons rendered fat from the pan, and raise heat to medium-high. Add sliced mushrooms and sauté, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, letting them brown nicely. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off heat and stir in garlic and parsley.

6. Slice duck 1/4-inch thick, crosswise at a slight angle, and serve immediately. Each serving should have 4 to 5 slices of duck, a large spoonful of mushrooms and a bit of sauce.

EASY, IF YOU PREP AHEAD

This is a classic French dessert — impressive but easy to make, if you get ahead on the prep work. It’s essential to make the dough and lemon curd in advance, up to two days ahead; otherwise, it becomes too much of a project. The buttery, cookielike dough is pressed into the pan, not rolled with a pin. The golden yellow tart is beautifully balanced — not too sweet, not too puckery, and flecked with freshly grated lime zest.

Recipe: Lemon Tart With a Touch of Lime

Yield: 8 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus chilling and cooling

Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons/150 grams all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 1/2 cup/115 grams unsalted butter (1 stick), sliced thinly
  • 1 large egg, beaten in a measuring cup, with enough cold water added to make 1/4 cup liquid

For the filling:

  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
  • 1/2 tablespoon grated lime zest (from 1 lime), plus more for garnish
  • 3/4 cup/180 milliliters lemon juice (from 5 or 6 large lemons)
  • 1/4 cup/60 milliliters lime juice (from 2 or 3 large limes)
  • 3/4 cup/150 grams granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup/170 grams unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • Powdered sugar, for garnish (optional)

Preparation

1. Make the dough: In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar and salt. Add butter and pulse briefly until well combined. Add egg and pulse just until dough comes together. Dough will be rather soft. Wrap with waxed paper or plastic wrap, and press to make a 1-inch-thick disk. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or it will be too soft to handle. (Make the dough up to 2 days in advance, if desired.)

2. Remove dough from the refrigerator and let soften at room temperature until pliable and soft, about 15 minutes. Using your fingertips, press dough into a 9-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom, making sure it is pressed evenly across the bottom and up the sides, about 1/8-inch thick. Press the dough against the sides to the very top. Pinch off any excess and smooth the edge. You’ll have slightly too much dough — save any left over to patch cracks after blind baking. Chill the tart dough in the pan until ready to bake. (You can also freeze it at this point, if you like, for up to a week.)

3. When ready to blind bake, heat oven to 350 degrees. Place the dough-lined tart pan on a baking sheet, and bake to a pale golden brown, about 30 minutes. (Pie weights shouldn’t be necessary, but check the dough during baking to make sure sides are not slumping. If so, press the sides back up with a wooden spoon.) For even browning, turn the tray halfway through the baking. Remove from oven, and cool to room temperature.

4. Make the filling: Put lemon and lime zest, lemon juice, lime juice, sugar and butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook until butter is melted and mixture is hot, 4 to 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, beat together eggs and yolks.

5. Whisk the hot mixture gradually into the eggs to temper them. Then pour everything back into the saucepan and return to heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens to a milkshake consistency, about 5 minutes. (Do not overcook, or it will curdle.) Pour through a fine-meshed sieve into a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature, whisking occasionally. Mixture will continue to thicken as it cools. (At this point, you can continue with the recipe, or cover the filling and refrigerate for up to 2 days.)

6. Spoon the lemon curd into the baked tart shell. Using a spatula, spread the curd evenly into the shell. Bake in a 350-degree oven until filling is set (not jiggly), about 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature. (This can be done several hours before serving.) Just before serving, top tart with lime zest and dust edges with powdered sugar, if desired.

AND TO DRINK …

If you love fine, aged red wine, this is the dish for you. The classic pairing for duck with wild mushrooms would be Burgundy. I’d look for one of the gutsier appellations, like Gevrey-Chambertin or Nuits-St.-George. A premier cru, 10 years old or more, would be wonderful, but younger village wines will work, too, as will good, aged pinot noirs from elsewhere. Alternatives to Burgundy? You are in luck again. This dish would go beautifully with an aged Barolo or Barbaresco. An aged Pomerol would be delicious as well. Beyond these ideal choices, I’d choose a Northern Rhône red or a good Chinon or Saumur-Champigny. I don’t recommend using any of your fine, aged red for the sauce. Choose something cheaper, which you could drink, too. — Eric Asimov

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