Thursday, May 31, 2012

Recipes from Brittany, France

I learned a new trick this week, which I'm sure will elicit a resounding "duh" from anyone with half a functioning brain. Here it is (are you ready?): If you want to find international recipes online, you have to learn to speak the language. Or use Google Translator. It seems so obvious doesn't it? Sure, NOW it does.
Let's back up a little so I can first tell you what country we're in. Or more accurately, what region, because this week we're entering a land of many cuisines, all of them gourmet. That's right, France. Specifically, Brittany.

Martin actually laughed at me when I told him that I was breaking France up into regions, because although it was his idea to tackle India that way, he's not sure little France deserves the same attention as big India. Of course, it might also be because he's English, and they love to poo-poo the French. Who knows. Anyway, after reading about French cuisine I decided that regional coverage was the way to go. Because although France is tiny, its culinary traditions are huge.

Brittany is in the northwest peninsula of France, with the English Channel to the north and England itself just beyond that. Historically this region has had a bit of an identity crisis, sometimes allying itself with France and sometimes with Britain. In fact it has often been called "Little Britain" (as opposed to Great Britain), and is actually one of six Celtic nations, a distinction it shares with Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. In 1956 Brittany was legally reconstituted as the French Region of Brittany, and since then its cultural identity has suffered something of a decline.

As far as food is concerned, Brittany is known for its seafood, a fact that didn't escape me even as I finally settled on a decidedly non-seafood meal. I made this choice for a couple of reasons, the first and most important being that I've been cooking a lot of seafood for Travel by Stove and I decided this week that I wanted to let my kids in on the fun, which basically rules out seafood.

Before I came to this conclusion I did have a famous Brittany seafood recipe picked out: Cotriade, which like the region it comes from seems to be a dish with a bit of an identity crisis. I found versions made with monkfish, versions made with eel, and versions made from mackerel. I found versions made with shellfish and versions made without. What I did not find, however, were any versions made with stuff I could actually find at Safeway. I could have substituted, of course (I've done it before) but it seemed like most of the potential substitutions (canned mackerel, for example, or cod) would have been a bit of a stretch. So that was my second reason for rejecting seafood.

Brittany is also famous for crêpes and galettes, which you probably know are thin pancakes that can be served with sweet fillings (crêpes) or savory (galettes). I decided against those, too, mainly because Martin makes them for breakfast all the time and they just seemed a bit too ordinary.

So what I finally decided on was a chicken dish (Poulet au Cidre Breton) made with another one of Brittany's regional favorites: Brut cider. Which of course I also couldn't find at Safeway, but BevMo had a pretty acceptable substitute. Here's the recipe:

Poulet au Cidre Breton

  • 6 chicken breasts
  • 2 golden apples, cut into small cubes
  • 3 large onions, cut into strips
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 cups of brut cider
  • 2 tbsp Cognac (optional)
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 2 pinches ground nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Ingredient note: "Brut" cider is a dry, carbonated cider that seems to be hard to come by in the US (or maybe just around here). I purchased a cider at BevMo that was described as "European-style, dry, carbonated," which I think it was pretty close to the Brut cider that is supposed to be used in this recipe.

The Poulet au Cidre Breton recipe made it very clear that it should be served with potatoes or rice, so I set out on a frustrating search for a Breton potato dish, which became a whole lot easier when I used Google Translator to give me the French words for "potato" and "recipe," which paired with "Bretagne" gave me quite a few to choose from. Here's the one I settled on:

Kouing Patatez (Breton name meaning "potato cake")

  • 1 1/3 lb potatoes
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten
  • Dash of nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

I also found my third recipe in the same manner:

Artichokes Breton

  • 4 large globe artichokes
  • 4 1/4 oz of cream
  • 1/3 cup butter butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 1/3 cup lemon juice *
  • Salt and pepper to taste

*Here's where we run into the real problem with using Google Translator, and that is crappy translation. I couldn't tell if this recipe called for that much lemon juice or simply that much of the cooking liquid from the artichokes. It didn't give a measurement for lemon juice in the ingredients, but it did ask for "1/3 litre of 'juice'" in the instructions, and there was something about cooking artichokes in there too that seemed a little non-sequitur. But it also didn't tell me to reserve the cooking liquid, so I couldn't really figure out for sure what it wanted. So I guessed. Based on my results I'm wondering if I guessed wrong.

And finally a dessert, which has actually been sitting in my recipe software for weeks:

Hazelnut Gâteau Breton

  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted, husked
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup salted butter, melted
  • 2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, divided
  • 1 large egg yolk beaten with 2 tsp water (for glaze)
  • Whole strawberries

(This recipe originally appeared in Bon Appetit Magazine)

The cake can be made ahead, so as in past weeks I'll just start there.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees, and butter a 9-inch springform pan.

Mix the sugar with the vanilla extract to make vanilla sugar. Make sure to break apart any lumps that form.

Now mix 2 tbsp of the vanilla sugar with the hazelnuts. Add them to a food processor or grinder and blend until the nuts form a fine powder.

Mix the 6 egg yolks with the rest of the vanilla sugar and whisk for 2 minutes. Now, the original recipe was quite clear about not using an electric mixer for this, which sounds a bit suspect to me. I do like to follow the recipe, though, so I hand mixed.

After the 2 minutes are up, add the hazelnut mixture, then gradually add the melted butter. Keep whisking.

Now sift the flour over the batter and stir gently until just blended. Don't overmix; this is a pretty thick batter and you don't want it to turn out rock hard.

Put the batter in the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula or the back of a spoon.

Brush the egg glaze over the top, then draw some cross hatches with a fork. Bake at 325 for about an hour, or until the cake is golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for 15 minutes, then loosen the springform pan and allow to cool completely. Serve with whole strawberries.

Artichokes take a while to cook, so let's do those next.

Cut the bottoms off of the artichokes and rub with lemon juice.

Boil in a pot of salted water until tender, about 40 minutes.

Now, when I make artichokes I always steam them, and if I did this recipe again I would cook them in my usual fashion rather than boiling. Boiling doesn't really serve a lot of purpose except that it fills them up with water, which doesn't come all the way out until you are in the middle of eating them. Plus I'm really not sure what purpose the lemon juice rub served except to be rinsed off in the boiling water.

When the artichokes are done, take them out and drain them (yeah right) and keep warm. Now make a roux with the flour and butter. Gradually add the lemon juice, then the cream.

Pour the sauce into a gravy boat and serve on the side.

The chicken also takes a little bit of time, but is a fairly straightforward recipe:

Melt half the butter in a large saucepan and saute the onions and apple cubes until golden.

In a second pan, melt the rest of the butter. Add the Cognac and chicken breasts. Cook until brown on both sides.

Top with the apples and onions, then add the cider. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Simmer uncovered until the cider has been reduced by about 2/3rds (The recipe claims this will take 30 to 40 minutes, but your chicken may dry out in this time. If you need to, remove the chicken once it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees, then keep simmering the sauce until it is the right consistency.)

Remove the chicken breasts if you haven't already done so, keeping them warm. Add the cream to the cider and onion mixture and stir for a few minutes.

Serve the chicken topped with the sauce.

And finally, the potatoes:

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the potatoes and cook for 20 minutes. Drain.

Meanwhile, butter a 9x9 casserole dish. Cut the rest of the butter up into cubes.

Run the potatoes through a ricer. Mix with the butter, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared casserole dish and smooth the top. Use a fork to make crosshatches in the top, then brush with the beaten egg yolk.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden (if desired, you can put under the broiler for a few minutes to get some darker color).

The verdict: My kids pretty much universally liked this meal, though they didn't eat the sauce with the artichokes (they would never accept any substitute for ranch dressing). I personally found the meal a little dull. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty of flavor, it just wasn't terribly interesting. The only thing I really didn't like was the sauce for the artichokes. It was too lemony, which is what makes me think that maybe my interpretation of Google's lousy translation was wrong. If you make this, you might want to try using some reserved water from the artichoke pot instead, and let me know if your results are better.

The one exception to the overall ho-hummedness of the meal was the gateau. The texture was somewhere between a cake and a cookie and the hazelnut flavor was subtle but just present enough to give the cake some uniqueness. I loved it. It would have been wonderful with a cup of coffee, or with a little whipped cream on top. Yum.

So in retrospect, my choices this week may not have done Brittany justice, and if I could find a cotraide recipe that actually seemed possible to duplicate I might like to do it over. Or maybe I should stick with one of the other more popular Brittany dishes, such as Moules-Frites (mussels with fries, a very highly un-kid-friendly dish, except maybe for the fries). Either way, I'm sure a region known for its food has more to offer than what I experienced this week, so I'll just have to put this one on my list of places to revisit. In my copious spare time.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of areas with huge culinary traditions the big three are France, China (though you seem to be aware of those two), and Turkey


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