During my days as a chef/restaurateur in Sydney I tended to look down on some traditional dishes such as Beef Bourguignon, Coq au Vin and names like Tournedos Rossini, Lobster Thermidor and just about anything with the words Cordon Bleu for good measure. Quite a few of us upcoming young turks & hot headed chefs would sneer at such fuddy daddy fare, and would make loud, derisive noises whenever we came across menus that would have those dinosaurian dishes on offer.
Then one day, during one of my annual visit to Paris, I stumbled upon this "new" eatery in Montparnasse and ate one of the most memorable meal: a medley of well known and well tried dishes & diehard traditionals, lovingly cooked and presented. Its menu was an exercise in simplicity & brevity: six appetizers, six main courses and six divine desserts. The menu changed every three months, reflecting the seasons and staying perilously close to Escoffier's highly codified French cuisine.
Of course, when one is young and brash, one makes the common mistake of throwing traditions under the bus, and with time, one realizes the errors of one's way and become a staunch traditionalist. That's our fate, we turn into our parents and suddenly develop a strong taste for rusticity & turtleneck sweaters. So I'm going to write about two recipes that are up there in the Pantheon of Trad Cuisine: Canard à l'Orange and Daube de Boeuf á La Provencale.
These two dishes are not only etched into the traditional culinary cannon but are being reglitterized by trendy chefs all over the world, with some adding a modern twist to each.
Canard à l'Orange is perhaps the most well known classic dish in the French cuisine repertoire although only a few weeks ago I did read in Le Monde that Couscous is now officially number one dish served in French households, surpassing the iconic Beef Bourguignon, the well loved Choucroute Garnie and even the staid Blanquette de Veau!
Food historians have written extensively about the practice of pairing citrus fruits with meat, likely originating in the Middle East (I am not aware of ancient Chinese recipes featuring fruits though it may have occurred). The acid in the fruit rips into the fat of the meat, making the meat more palatable and digestible, particularly if it's a fatty cut.
Canard à l'Orange originated in Tuscany (they called it "Paparo Melarancia") and was exported to France by the ultra sophisticated Catherine de Medici, who not only married Henry II of France but also introduced the fork to the uncouth French tables, ices and ice cream and a multitude of hitherto unheard dishes. It is acknowledged that the real turning point in French gastronomy was kick-started by her arrival. But let's get back to our canard! The secret of this dish lies in the delectable sauce of course but also in which manner the duck is marinated.
For 4 persons you will need 4 mallard duck breasts, skin on, 2 large oranges, a small glass of Grand Marnier, a small glass of brandy, half a pint of chicken stock, 2 tablespoons of Balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons of acacia honey (any wildflower honey will do), 1 tablespoon of crushed black pepper, a handful of finely chopped parsley, a knob of butter, a pinch of salt and a dash of olive oil. In an earthenware bowl, mix the juice of 1 orange, the Balsamic vinegar, the brandy, the molasses, the honey, the cracked pepper, half the salt, and the finely chopped parsley. Mix well and cover the breasts with this and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, ideally 8.
Get zests from the two oranges (the juice of one of them ended up in the marinade), making sure you're not touching the bitter pith, julienne into thin strips and drop into a small saucepan filled with boiling water for 1 minute, dry and set aside. Take the duck breasts out of the bowl and dry them with a paper towel, and set aside the marinade juices (that's half your sauce!) If you wish you could segment the remaining orange and use as decoration. In a frying pan, over medium to high heat, put half the butter knob into it, a dash of olive oil and fry the breasts skin down first for a good 3 minutes, turn over and fry also for 3 minutes. The meat should be served pink. When done, take out the breasts and cover them with a plate, pour the Grand Marnier into pan, scrape the burnt bits, stir well, add the marinade and half the chicken stock keep the other half if needed). Cook over high heat for at least 2 minutes, until you get an unctuous sauce. Drop the breasts into it, reduce the heat, whisk in the remaining butter (this will add taste and shine), check the seasoning for salt and throw the zests in, stir for a minute, slice the breasts, cover with sauce and serve with your favorite vegetables. The longer version to this dish is roasting the entire bird. Personally I prefer the breasts or magrets, it's quicker and you can regale your guests with funny stories as you cook.
The pic above is of what we call a daubière, slightly similar to a tagine, in which we cook our Daube de Boeuf (beef stew). The word derives from Provencal adobar which means prepping & cooking. But don't panic if you don't have one, a medium-sized Le Creuset casserole or something similar is perfect for this dish. If memory serves me well, Julia Child had a variation of Daube de Boeuf á La Provençale which included the addition of anchovies and capers. I'll stick to the Provencal version which is cooked with at least half a bottle of good red wine, olives, both green and black, and flavored with our sacred trinity: sage, thyme and rosemary, with a couple of bay leaves representing the Holy Ghost. As this is the kind of useful dish that is slowly cooked, it could be made a day ahead and warmed up when the guests arrive. Like curries, stews have a habit of tasting better the next day. And the next (providing of course that's it's not overcooked).
It is essential to purchase a good chunk of beef with little or no fat. A piece of rump or chuck steak would be ideal. For 4 people you will need 2 pounds of beef, cut into large chunks (about 2 inch), 8 to 10 ounces of streaky (unsmoked) bacon or salted pork, cut into small cubes, 2 carrots, cut into chunks, 2 onions, chopped up roughly, 4 ripe tomatoes, sliced thickly, 4 ounces of button mushrooms, whole, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 ounce of large green olives and 1 ounce of small black ones, pitted, 4 garlic cloves, peeled, a pint of reasonably good, dry red wine, the zests of half an orange (this will give it extra oomph), a bouquet garni comprising of 2 sprigs of thyme, rosemary, sage and 2 bay leaves, salt & pepper to taste and last but not least, 3 to 4 ounces of pork rind, chopped up (this will give body and extra flavor to the stew).
The idea behind this dish is to layer all the ingredients, cover and bake in a medium heat oven and go about your business. In the bottom of the pot pour the olive oil, and place the cut carrots & onions. Season with salt & pepper. Then add half the pork rind on top. Then the sliced tomatoes & the button mushrooms. Then arrange the meat chunks on top, interspersed with the salt pork or bacon cubes. When you get to the middle, insert the garlic cloves, the olives, the orange zests and the bouquet garni of herbs. Top up with the rest of the meat chunks and pour the wine over it. Cover with lid. Preheat your oven to 140C/285F and bake for up to 3 hours. Let the stew rest for a good 10 minutes before serving. Gnocchi make the perfect companion to this dish though I've served it with all kinds of pasta, like pappardelle or tortiglioni.
Next week, two traditional seafood recipes, Homard à L'Armoricaine and Coquilles Saint Jacques. Eventually I will come around to write an entire diary devoted to preparing a knock-out Couscous.
Some of you may have noticed that this series sometimes appears on Thursdays, and sometimes on Tuesdays. Sunday is a new one. With my workload, I just can't post at regular intervals.