“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Raclette

When I first moved to France, I remember my husband saying to me that he was a big fan of something called raclette. Truthfully, I had no idea what it was but he described it as “meal of primarily melted cheese.” Considering my deep love affair with cheese fondue, I figure this could only be a good thing. My very first experience with raclette was in the lovely French town of Strasbourg where I went to the MOST amazing restaurant for cheese lovers: La Cloche à Fromage by René Tourette. This is where I discovered that raclette was indeed “melted cheese” but holy moly it was also SO MUCH MORE!

Raclette
The action of scraping the melted raclette onto bread…*drool* 

What IS Raclette: 
Raclette (pronounced: rack-let) is a type of semi-firm cheese, primarily made with cow’s milk ,with Swiss-German origins.  The name raclette derives from the French verb racler, meaning “to scrape.” By some accounts, raclette has been documented in Swiss texts dating back as far as the late 1200s. A typically wheel-shaped cheese, raclette started as peasant food that provided farmers a wealth of calories, protein and warmth at the end of the day. It was originally heated by fire and scraped off onto starchier foods such as bread and potatoes.  Other than the development of electric heating sources and raclette parties, not much has changed since the early humble origins of raclette other than the fact that very few would refer to it as peasant food anymore!

How To Eat Raclette:
Extremely popular throughout France and Switzerland, raclette can be found in many mountain restaurants, warming up skiers after a snowy day on the pistes. If this isn’t within you reach, you can always have raclette at home, although I do encourage you to try the classic ‘mountain chalet post-ski alpine raclette’ indulgence at least once in your life. You can thank me later!

Modern raclette is served in homes primarily using a modern table top electric grill with tiny cheese pans called coupelles. Raclette is served at the table pre-sliced and ready for melting. There are many modern varieties of raclette so feel free to serve a tasting platter of different raclette if you feel adventurous. My daughter LOVES the sheep/brébis version and my son loves the one with added dried chili flakes. I heavily favour the extra creamy version and Mr H often reaches for the peppercorn and garlic varieties. Common accompaniments are: small boiled potatoes, assortment of pickles/gherkins (the sour kind, not the sweet) and dried meats/charcuterie. If you are less into the dried meat part, like me, feel free to add a large salad with vinaigrette and sliced vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms and zucchini/courgette.

Grill für Raclette-Käse
Modern table top raclette grill

Raclette is a self-serve meal that evokes a lot of conversation and fun. I know purists who melt their cheese and pour it only onto their boiled potatoes and I know others that get creative and put dried meats and pickles in their coupelles and heat it all together. This is where your creativity can take over! I like to grill veggies on the top grill and eat together with the melted raclette. Pure bliss!

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Raclette serving options

What to Drink with Raclette:
Hands down, I am a red wine drinker. It is my go to when having a glass at night or when dining with friends. That said, I have spent the last ten+ years between France and now Switzerland and I have learned that white wine does pair better with cheese than red. There, I said it. It pained me to admit that a few years ago as I was very anti-white wine, but I have changed 😉

With raclette, a dry white is what you are looking for. You don’t want a white that overpowers the cheese’s natural flavours. If you are in Switzerland, I would look for the 2015 World Champion Chasselas La Grand’Rue Chasselas Reserve. Trust me, I’ve done a a lot of ‘research’ on this and Swiss cheese and Swiss wine make a perfect pairing!! If you are elsewhere, any light, low acidity, dry white will work. IF you are a staunch red wine drinker, try a pinot noir or other light, dry red. You don’t want something so heavy that it takes away from the cheese. For an added twist, try chilling your wine first.

At the end of your meal, if you wish to have a truly Swiss experience, try serving a small shot of cherry kirsch. Similar to the le coup du milieu that traditionally accompanies a cheese fondue, a shot of kirsch is believed to help break down the fats in the cheese and allow you to digest your meal better. I heavily question the ‘science’ here but who am I to challenge another culture’s traditions? When in Switzerland…!

In addition to wine and spirits, it is quite common to find people in Switzerland having a hot beverage such as tea or a tisane with raclette. Mint tea at the end of the meal is often offered to help digest.

Final Thoughts:
When choosing to host a raclette party or make raclette at home, remember that this is meant to be a social meal that lasts for quite some time. Raclette dining is one of the few things where the Swiss seem to forgo schedules and just allow the evening to unfold. Eat slowly, take pauses, enjoy some fine wine, or a hot tea like you would in a rustic, traditional chalet. Don’t rush eating a lot of cheese or you might pay for it later! The modern grill machines with the tiny coupelles allow you to pace yourself with small tastes at a time. Above all else, enjoy!

Photo credit: Fotolia

“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Bündner Nusstorte (Sweet Walnut Tart)

Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.

-Julia Child

I remember early on in my days of culinary apprenticeship when a sous-chef nicknamed Pink Floyd I was working with said to me, “Have you chosen yet?” I didn’t know what he meant so I mumbled something about not yet and needing more time. He pressed on and said, “Don’t worry, your talent will chose itself.” This made me panic so I had to ask for clarification and admit I didn’t know what he was talking about. He laughed and said, “Cooking or baking, you can do both but you can only be great at one.”

Since that day, I have had a hard time not noticing that there are some people who prefer to spend time measuring and perfecting cakes and pies and others of us who like the freedom that comes with inventing sauces with an unmeasured splash of this and a pinch or seven of this. Cooking was where my talent was and I avoided baking like the plague for many years after.  However, having children changed a lot of that. There were birthday cakes to make, cookies to stir up together and cupcakes volunteered on my behalf to be taken to school. I became a quasi-baker.

So, it it with this somewhat confidence-lacking spirit that I decided I would take it upon myself to learn to make this scrumptious Swiss dessert: the Bündner Nusstorte (also known as Engandiner Nusstorte). This is a shortcrust pastry tart/pie that combines walnuts, cream, honey and sugar into a sticky sweet pie that is perfect for the upcoming holiday season. This tart comes hails from the Graubünden region of Switzerland and is considered a local delicacy. A lot of locals have their own version of the recipe so they will vary from place to place and baker to baker but if you ever visit please know to never ask for a local nusstorte recipe!! These are highly guarded secrets passed down from generation to generation. For this reason, I struggled to find a recipe online that tasted like the one I was familiar with so I combined a few ideas from different sites and have put them together in this version for you. If you are someone that needs help imagining what this tastes like, think of a warm caramel nutty pie/tart. If you add the optional salt, you basically end up with salted caramel pie. Amazing.

Kick back and warm up with a slice by a roaring fire!
Kick back and warm up with a slice by a roaring fire!

This is a pretty rich tart so please keep that in mind while serving. For me, this is the perfect tart with a cup of tea or coffee after a cold afternoon of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Some recipes call for a sweet shortcrust pastry but I prefer the unsweetened version. I’m not convinced sweet shortcrust adds much to the overall taste. IF you are paranoid about making the shortcrust hear me out for a moment. The Julia child quote above is there for a reason because I want you to try and make the pastry, at least once. The first time I made a perfect shortcrust I was ecstatic and there really is a sense of accomplishment in finishing something I was sure I wouldn’t be able to do. If you can’t must up the courage, you can use pre-made shortcrust or pâte brisée.

Bündner Nusstorte

For the pastry:

  • 250g/1 cup plain white flour
  • 125g/half cup of COLD unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 chilled egg
  • 15ml/1 tablespoon cold water

Process flour, cubed or finely chopped butter and a pinch of salt in a food processor until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Whisk the egg with the cold water and add to mixture in the food processor. Process only until it starts to clump together. Please do not over-mix and definitely stop before the mixture starts to resemble anything like a big ball. Dump the mixture out onto a clean work surface and gently knead for a minute or two to bring the mixture together. Divide the mixture into two balls (2/3 and 1/3 respectively) and wrap each individually in cling film. Refrigerate for a minimum of two hours. Alternately, you can make this part the day before and keep in the fridge until ready to roll out.

Cube/chop butter then place back in the fridge to chill for a few moments. Butter needs to be COLD for shortcrust pastry to work.
Cube/chop butter then place back in the fridge to chill for a few moments. Butter needs to be COLD for shortcrust pastry to work.
Slowly add egg and water mixture to food processor.
Slowly add egg and water mixture to food processor.
Turn mixture out onto a clean surface and knead for a minute or so to bring the mixture together.
Turn mixture out onto a clean surface and knead for a minute or so to bring the mixture together.

For the filling:

  • 250g/1 cup white granulated caster sugar
  • 250g/1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 45ml/3tbs quality honey
  • 250ml/1 cup heavy cream (set 50ml/approx 3tbs to the side for later)
  • 1 egg, separated
  • water
  • salt – optional
Helpful tip - keep things tidy by smashing your walnuts in a zip bag. I used a rolling pin to gently smash the walnuts into small chunks.
Helpful tip – keep things tidy by smashing your walnuts in a zip bag. I used a rolling pin to gently smash the walnuts into small chunks.

In a pot place the sugar and 15ml/1tbs of water over medium heat. You want to continue to heat the sugar until it melts and turns into a light golden brown. Add the honey and walnuts. Stir over medium heat for a minute or two until well mixed. Add the cream (keeping some to the side for now) and continue to stir over low-medium heat until the mixture thickens up. Remove from heat and leave to the side for a moment. IF you are a salted caramel fan like me, then feel free to add salt at this point to your taste (I add about 1/2 teaspoon). Stir and leave to settle for a moment.

Melt the sugar and water together until it makes a rich caramel colour being careful not to burn.
Melt the sugar and water together until it makes a rich caramel colour being careful not to burn.
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Add the nuts, honey and cream. Stir until the cream and caramel sauce are well-blended.

Preheat oven to 180C/355F.

Remove larger pastry ball from the fridge and place on a work surface covered with clingfilm. Place another sheet of clingfilm on top and gently roll your base crust out.  My pie pan/tin is 30cm so I aim to roll my base crust out to about 34-35cm so it can rise up the sides of the pan. Place in a greased pan/tin, gently adding the filling and then repeat with the top crust making sure you roll enough out to create a crust that will close and cover the entire tart. Brush edges of the base crust with the egg yolk (lightly beaten) to allow the top and bottom crusts to stick together. You can get fancy with the top crust if you like but I just like to go over the entire top gently pricking with a fork to allow some steam to escape. Mix the rest of the cream with the egg yolk and brush on the top crust before placing in the oven. (NOTE on the pastry: if your pastry appears too hard to roll when you take it out of the fridge, beat it with a rolling pin for a minute. This old trick works a treat by shocking the pastry).

Brush the edges with egg white to secure the top crust and bottom crust together.
Brush the edges with egg white to secure the top crust and bottom crust together.

Bake for 30-40 minutes depending on your oven (take out when the crust is a lovely golden brown all around).

Bake and wait!
Bake and wait!

Allow this tart to cool for at least 30 mins before serving. If you are serving this up on a cold winter afternoon, now is the perfect time to put the kettle on and get a fire started. Sit back and enjoy!  If you are ever in Graubünden, make sure you stop by the local bakeries and try out several versions of Bündner nusstorte. You won’t regret it!

Leave to cool for at least 30 minutes.
Leave to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart

“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – La Domaine de la Ville de Morges: Part I

Ever wonder why the classic Swiss Army Knives such as this Victorinox model have a wine corkscrew on them? You might think, “It’s Switzerland, right? A fondue fork or a cowbell make more sense than a corkscrew!!” Well my friends, before moving here I would have agreed with you. Then we became locals and learned: The Swiss Make Amazing Wine.

Read that again and let it sink in.

Swiss wine? Is that a joke? No, it isn’t and not only is it not a joke, it is one of their best-kept secrets! Swiss wines are ‘out of this world’ good. So good, in fact, that they have been trumping my other classic favourites from France, Italy and Spain as of late when choosing what to buy or drink with dinner. I have a newfound love and respect for what makes Swiss wines so great and why you should go straight to your local wine shop and ask if they have any Swiss wines for you to try, too. To be clear, this will not be a typical A Table! post where I recipe share for all of you. I have decided to celebrate the local award-winning wines and share what I have learned since moving here: never underestimate a Swiss wine!

First, I must admit that finding information on Swiss wines to share with an English audience has been difficult and somewhat limited. These local award-winning wines are promoted and celebrated locally, which means international press and articles are difficult to come by. Also, and let’s be honest, the Swiss are modest people. So modest, in fact, that we didn’t know that by moving to Morges we were relocating to one of the biggest powerhouses in Swiss wine production: the region known as La Côte. The area where we live has been producing wine since the 1200s and in 1547, the township of Morges became the proprietors of Domaine de la Ville de Morges. That’s right, our community owns a vineyard that it is seriously worth taking notice of!

With a space of over 50ha, the Domaine de la Ville produces 13 different wines including red, white and rosé varietals. Included on this list:
La Grand’Rue Chasselas Reserve
-2015 World Champion Chasselas
-Médaille D’Argent au Grand Prix du Vin Suisse 2015
-Lauriers d’Or Terravin 2015
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Also produced by the Domaine de la Ville: Les Guérites with the Millésime 2013 recently winning the Médaille D’Or au Grand Prix du Vin Suisse 2015. The Millésime 2013 will be available for sale in December this year and also received the distinction of being nominated in the category of meilleur vin d’assemblage rouge.

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A shout out of congratulations must also be given to Domaine de la Ville de Morges for recently winning 5 medals at the 2015 Swiss Wine Grand Prix (3 silver and two gold). Not bad for a local vineyard!

So it only stands to reason that I must now follow this post with a second one in the coming weeks including a visit to the vineyard, samplings and suggested food pairings. I suffer for my writing but it is worth it for the sake of education 😉 !
Any takers on paying a visit to the Domaine with me?

For now I will continue to enjoy my glass of Le Protagoniste at night!

To the winemakers at Domaine de la Ville, I hope to see you soon. Continue to strive for excellence and just know that your fan base is growing!

Photo credits: Fotolia, Domaine de la Ville de Morges

“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Perfecting Cheese Fondue

Cheese. Where do I even begin to explain my love for cheese!? At this point in my life, I think I would give up almost all other foods if I could live on cheese and not look like big old Brie! So, it should come as no surprise that life in Paris was pretty chock-full of cheese samples. I discovered new and amazing ones that I had never heard of before like Vacherin Mont d’Or. I also discovered some that even I couldn’t wrap my cheese-loving taste buds around (sorry to my beloved Kiwi and the ‘farm cheese’ she introduced me to). Then we relocated to Switzerland and the cheese boat I was cruising along got a welcome shake up. New names, new textures and new tastes…oh my!

So here we are. Knee deep into our new life in Switzerland where the nights are getting colder, the fireplace has been on a few times already and in this part of the world, the cheese sections at the markets and grocery stores have quadrupled in size.  I kid you not, on the first of October every store turned into an enabler for cheese-addicts everywhere. Fondue pots. Raclette machines. Recipes.  Samples. Pre-mixed cheese blends. Offers to discover for free ‘your perfect fondue blend’ screaming at me. MY PERFECT BLEND??? I couldn’t live another day without knowing what that meant! I NEEDED to know what my perfect blend was! Thus, I didn’t just dabble into this new Swiss world of fondue, I leapt. Head first. With a crusty baguette and fork in hand!

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Fondue pots on sale at the local post office!

I can now say after much consideration that I am a classic “moitié-moitié” person – half Gruyère AOP and half Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP. BLISS!

Such the fan that I have become, I have been perfecting making fondue moitié-moitié at home. The juniors and Mr H have not complained once 😉 Quelle surprise!  Thus I give you my person, and my perfect version, of moitié-moitié.

Setting up for a 9 person fondue party chez nous!
Setting up for a 9 person fondue party chez nous!

Cheese Fondue moitié-moitié

Serves 4

  • 400 grams of Gruyère AOP, grated
  • 400 grams of Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP, grated
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 300- 400 ml dry white wine (or you can use vegetable stock, alcohol-free wine, water or a mix of wine and other depending on your preferences)
  • 15g/1tbsp fécule (potato flour)
  • nutmeg
  • pepper
  • kirsch, optional (I prefer cherry)
  • day old baguette

Rub your fondue pot all over with the garlic clove. This seasons the pot lightly and is a step heaped in tradition which is considered crucial here in Switzerland. What you do with the clove after is up to you. You can either finely mince it up with a knife or a garlic press and use it in your fondue or leave it out. I use it. Life without garlic makes zero sense to me.

Next, mix your cheese and potato flour together in the pot. Add 300ml of the wine/stock and garlic, if using, and heat over a medium temperature (save the extra liquid to thin out your mixture if it is too thick). STIR CONSTANTLY. This doesn’t mean leave it for 10 mins and stir it. It means constantly. It doesn’t take long to melt down so don’t worry about hours spent slaving over the hob. Once the cheese has started to melt, I add pepper and nutmeg to taste. When all the ingredients have come together to form an amazing pot of melted bliss, add the shot of kirsch, stir and serve.

Now, fondue isn’t just dip bread and eat. You must know that you will have to stir constantly with a spatula throughout your meal. There are some social taboos on this, the one we have seen most consistently is to stir in a figure 8 pattern. NEVER stir when someone has their bread dipped, this is considered rude. One person dips at a time and doesn’t eat off of the long for but rather, slides their gooey cheesy bread onto their plate and eats with their own fork. Don’t double-dip. Ever.

Can you taste it?
Can you taste it?

Some household rules we have adopted include:

  • giving a kiss to someone at the table if you drop your bread into the pot
  • le coup du milieu which is basically a shot of kirsch taken at the midpoint (yes, a shot) to help aid the digestion of the cheese
  • the egg – before the fondue has melted all the way down to the bottom of the pot, crack in an egg and stir. It thins out the mixture, extends the life a bit and gives a new flavour boost to the mixture
  • la religieuse – I feel like my life wasn’t complete until I discovered la religieuse (translated into nun in English but let’s ignore that). At the end of the meal, 99% of the time when you have finished all the amazing fondue you are left with a golden brown crust. DO NOT THROW THIS OUT or pour water all over to soak it off. Instead, carefully, using just a normal butter knife or something similar, try to pry this off the bottom of the pan. You are left with a salty, crispy treat that ends the meal in a perfect way! YUM!
  • I serve with pickles/gherkins (not the sweet kind), a VERY large salad with vinaigrette and my family likes a plate of charcuterie such as salami, cured hams, etc. I don’t partake in that but to each their own!

So, that’s it. It isn’t complicated but it IS delicious!! Feel free to adapt and play with the recipe. That’s part of the fun here! Remember, though, this is a very heavy meal. It is rarely finished with dessert other than some fresh fruit or something else very light. Please, no chocolate fondue to finish the night off. Swiss heads would roll!

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Céleri Rémoulade

You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.

– Julia Child

When I first arrived in France, I had a pretty solid background in cooking. I was a fan of a wide array of foods and wasn’t what one would consider ‘fussy’ when it came to eating. Thank you, Paris, for ruining that! OK, OK that isn’t 100% accurate but it is based in a lot of truth. So many things taste inherently better here and for that I bring your attention back to the Julia Child quote above.  Like Ms. Child, I strongly believe that meals made with real, quality, fresh ingredients taste much better than those made from what I like to call Frankenfoods – foods dreamt up by chemists, not Mother Nature.

After my son was born, I quickly enrolled in a programme that brings you a different mixed organic panier (basket) of fresh fruits and vegetables every week. I registered our family for the 7kg box and delighted each week in picking up the panier and discovering what was inside. No two baskets were ever the same as the contents were all farm-fresh and based on seasonal availabilities. It is here where I received my first céleri-rave (celeriac) and boy did that throw me for a curve! I was quite honestly stumped by this knobby, white-ish, brown-ish, lumpy ball in my basket. I had to resort to Google to figure out what it was as the paniers never came with a list, just a box full of surprises that Forrest Gump’s mama would have been proud of. Somehow the search results didn’t help me understand this crazy little root vegetable any better.

So there I was, a celeriac in hand and no idea what to do with it. Many recipes online suggested to try making it into something that resembled mashed potatoes. That is what I did and having tried it,  I do not recommend it. First, little miss celeriac-novice here must have totally screwed up because I basically made mush, not mash. Second, I have discovered celeriac is SO MUCH BETTER and is worthy of dignified recipes that reach far beyond the depths of mash.

On one particular night out, Mr H and I went to this amazing little historic brasserie called Le Stella. Listed on the entrées menu (appetisers) was this curious-sounding dish called Céleri Rémoulade. It was described as an egg, celeriac and dijon mustard salad. Intrigued by the celeriac I had so clearly failed with before, I gave it a chance. That was about 6 years ago and I’ve been giving it a chance ever since! To say I fell in love with céleri rémoulade is an understatement. It is very basic but works so well on so many levels. Serve it as a side dish, a salad, an appetiser, etc. This isn’t complicated cooking but it IS well-worth it! I have tried several recipes/versions over the years and this is my particular blend and obviously my favourite!

Céleri Rémoulade

Serving sizes are hard to determine based on what you will be using this for but the good news is this makes a lot and lasts for several days in the fridge!

  • One celeriac
  • 2 egg yolks** (3 if your celeriac is large)
  • 250ml/1 cup quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons/15-30ml of quality dijon mustard (more or less if you prefer – also use more if your celeriac is large)
  • vinegar
  • lemon
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions:

Start with the best ingredients your budget allows for. A quality mustard and oil will taste so much better and really enhance the flavour of this dish.  You will need to peel your celeriac. For this I like to cut it in half to create flat surfaces then slowly cut the outer peel off with a sharp knife. Take your time doing this if you are a kitchen newbie.

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Gather all your ingredients together before you start, makes it less stressful and you won’t have a shock 3/4 of the way through that you are out of something!
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Carefully cut the celeriac in half to create flat surfaces for peeling.

Next peel your celeriac and then, if you are using a hand grater, begin to grate. If you have  food processor,  into smaller chunks that will easily grate.

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Cutting into smaller, more manageable pieces makes it easier for your food processor to handle.
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Weeeee!!!!!

Set aside your grated celeriac for a couple minutes. You can, if you want, toss in some lemon juice to stop from browning but if you work fast enough, that isn’t necessary.

You might notice at this point the sauce you are making is like a dijon-heavy, lemon-y mayonnaise. You would be correct. If the idea of using raw eggs scares you or you are too afraid to make your mayonnaise, you CAN use a store-bought version. Please make sure it is real, quality mayo and not something with the word “Whip” in the name! Substitute the mayo (about 250ml/1 cup) for the egg and oil, add the rest of the ingredients.

Begin by separating your eggs and adding the yolks to a bowl big enough to whisk in (don’t toss the egg whites out, you can store them in the fridge and add to an omelette, etc.). Add the dijon mustard, salt and pepper and start to whisk. Now, slowly, and I do mean slowly,begin to add the olive oil by drizzling in while you continue to whisk. Keep going until all the oil has been added. At this point, I squeeze in a lemon wedge or two to add some liquid and thin it out a bit. If I am I craving an acidic taste, I will also add about a teaspoon (5ml) of white vinegar. If necessary, add more salt and pepper to taste. You want a creamy, mayonnaise-like texture. Fluffy and creamy. Those are your keywords.

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Egg yolks and dijon
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Slowly add the olive oil by drizzling in while you whisk.
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Adding a touch of vinegar gives the sauce/mayonnaise a slightly more acidic taste that I happen to love!

All that is left to do at this point is mix the celeriac and sauce, then place in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to marinade. Serve with salad greens, tomatoes, parsley, you name it. This is a versatile and yummy side dish or appetiser that will please you way more than celeriac mush. I promise!!

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Mix, mix, mix!! I add small amounts of celeriac at a time. This way I don’t run out of sauce vs. how much celeriac I grated. You can always add more, you can’t take away!!!
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Mixed and ready to chill!
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Enjoy!!

**PLEASE NOTE: I am compelled to remind you that choosing to eat raw egg yolks is just that, YOUR choice. As a blogger, I am not responsible for your choice and assume no subsequent liability.

Photos: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Soupe à l’oignon gratinée

I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression.

– Maya Angelou

What fun is life as an expat if you don’t indulge in the local cuisine? Before I jump into any recipes, I want to share with you my history with cooking and where my love of trying new ideas comes from. In thinking back to the start of my culinary ride, I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t cook. Sure I have had cooking fails over the years but I truly feel like my hands have been in the kitchen my entire life. I learned to make pretty complicated things at a young age (yes Dad, I’m referring to ‘could you whip up a lasagna for tonight?’ at 10 years old).  I learned kids basics, too: soup, Kraft Dinner (mac ‘n cheese for my American friends), pancakes, pizza dough, etc. I was always interested in what was going on in our kitchen. I tried some pretty fancy things, too, including learning how to make chocolate éclairs with my amazing Aunt H when I was still a kid. All of these early kitchen moments still stay with me and are quite noticeably tied to my life as a mother of two youngsters who both love to cook, as well.

In 1996 I registered to become a Chef Apprentice under the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. This programme has changed since then but it still operates in a fairly similar fashion. As an apprentice, you must complete around 3000 hours of on-the-job training, working with various chefs, then complete the programme at a designated college or university. I can honestly say that what I learned in that time has stayed with me far longer than a lot of other things I learned in school (Pythagorean’s Theorem, anyone?). I worked professionally for several years before putting my culinary life behind me. I started to dislike cooking. I found myself frustrated by intricate dishes and wanted comfort foods. I lost my cooking mojo and it stayed lost for many years.

In time, I began a new journey. A journey that has landed me here, in what many consider, the culinary capital of the world. Paris has been an interesting place to live as far as dining, cooking and food exploration is concerned. I have learned to give green beans a chance. I have learned about the different butters that exists and how to use them in pretty much everything. I have learned to make things like Coq au vin, Charlotte aux Fraises and ratatouille (recipes coming in time). Yet, I came here with some classics already in my pocket and have learned that sometimes, I like MY version better! Take for instance the timeless soupe à l’oignon gratinée aka French Onion Soup. One of my absolute favourite dishes especially when I am on a ski holiday in the Alps. Nothing is better at warming you up on a cold winter day, except maybe fondue!! However, I have been routinely disappointed in actual restaurants here with their soup. I even complained in a famous Parisian restaurant once about it being too watery to which my polite French waitress replied, “but madame, there is water in soup!”

So, it seemed fitting to me when I decided I would incorporate local dishes in this blog (hungry adventurers have to eat!) that I would start with one of my favourites: soupe à l’oignon gratinée. This recipe is my own take on this soup and you don’t have to agree with how I make it. It’s OK. All I can say is that boy oh boy does this version ever do the trick for me!

**Please do not attempt this soup at 6pm hoping to eat it for 6:30pm. She needs time to really develop her flavours and to rush it would be a sin.  I generally make mine in the afternoon then turn off the heat, cover and let it sit for the rest of the day. I reheat just in time for dinner then add the cheese and bread. At this point, this dish is complete perfection.

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée:

Makes 4 – 6 servings depending on your bowl and appetite size

  • 700g thinly sliced onions (I use a mix of yellow and red to enhance the flavour)
  • 2 cloves of garlic finely diced
  • 30g flour (optional – just makes it slightly less watery)
  • 1-1,5L beef, chicken or vegetable stock (for a veggie-friendly version)
  • 100ml red wine
  • 5ml or 1tsp thyme
  • 30ml or 2tbs Worcestershire sauce (there are vegan versions if you prefer)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • unsalted butter
  • salt and pepper
  • stale bread (day old baguette is perfect)
  • Grated cheese (I use a mixture of Emmental, Gruyère and Comté)

Directions:

Melt butter in a pot over medium heat. Add onions and begin to simmer, stirring frequently for about 10 minutes. You want them soft, translucent and slightly caramelised. Add the garlic, stir, then add flour and quickly stir again to coat the onions, not allowing it to stick to the bottom of the pot. Once all the onions are coated, add your wine and thyme (oooh a rhyme!). Stir again for a minute or so. At this point, at the remaining ingredients (stock, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf and pepper, leaving the salt out for now). Leave simmering for at least 30 minutes. Watch your liquid level doesn’t boil off too much, if needed you can add some more stock or water. When you are done you can either leave it to settle for a while like I do or move onto the next step: CHEESE AND BREAD!

Simmering away!
Simmering away!

You can accomplish this next step one of two ways: traditionally the soup is served into each bowl, topped with slices or chunks of stale bread, further topped with mounds of cheese then broiled to a crisp, salty, golden, cheesy perfection. However, not everyone HAS the right types of bowls for the oven so there is an alternate method. Get a cookie sheet and make little piles of bread topped with cheese for however many bowls of soup you are preparing. Make sure that they will fit into your bowl size after being in the oven otherwise you will create a big mess. Broil these bad boys then use a spatula to carefully transfer them on top of your soup! Voilà!

Parfait!
Parfait!

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia