Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘julia child’

Four Prunes Day

A message from Ariane

Today is a strange food holiday: Four Prunes Day. I believe it refers to the idea that four prunes a day will keep the doctor away. But I am happy to take the opportunity on this official holiday to share my affection for this little wrinkly fruit with you.

pruna003

Sadly, prunes seem to be the punch line to a joke in America, valued only for their fiber, not flavor. But in Gascony, where there are about 3 million plum trees, we know that prunes are special.  Prunes have been part of the gastronomic heritage of Southwest France for centuries.

Originally brought by the Greeks and Romans from China, and planted all through the Mediterranean, the plum holds a special place in the city of Agen, where the famous Prune d’Ente trees produce luscious plums that are well-suited to drying. These are the renowned pruneaux d’Agen, or Agen prunes.

autre011

Vintage postcard of harvest in Agen

These particular plum trees were developed in the 13th century by Benedictine monks who crossed the existing trees with a variety the Crusaders brought home from Syria. The tree survived harsh winters, world wars and triumphed in the 21st century, when it was recognized in 2002 by the EU with the Indication Géographique Protégée.

Sorting prunes

Sorting plums in Agen

Everyone in France knows that Agen is the place for the sweetest, juiciest, plumpest prunes, and a visit there would reveal a myriad of ways to eat prunes.

Agen Prunes

Agen prunes in their natural setting

At D’Artagnan, we have incorporated prunes into several products that reflect the flavors of my area of France: Duck Terrine Mousquetaire, which is a coarse-ground pâté of duck (the livers, too), pork meat, a dash of Armagnac and studded with prunes.

mousq

D’Artagnan Duck Terrine Mousquetaire

And our famous French Kisses, which are prunes that have been marinated in Armagnac and then stuffed with mousse of foie gras. They are the perfect amuse bouche, and are a favorite at parties. I wouldn’t be caught without them on New Year’s Eve.

kisses

D’Artagnan French Kisses

Which reminds me of a fun story. Back in the early days of D’Artagnan, I was invited by Michel Richard to help honor Julia Child on her 80th birthday. He invited many prominent chefs and 500 guests to his Los Angeles restaurant, Citrus, for a feast. With so many meals to prepare, the mise en place (prep work) was being done all over town. I was supposed to work at the hot foie gras station. I had also brought foie gras mousse and pitted prunes soaked in Armagnac with me from New Jersey, so I could make French Kisses.

That morning the kitchen was a mess. Celebrated chefs such as Jean-Louis Palladin, Vincent Guerithault and Thomas Keller were working like maniacs to get their dishes organized. TV reporters and journalists followed them around, asking questions, trying to get a sound bite or quote. Cameras flashed.

I found a little corner to work in the hallway, and started by draining the Armagnac from the soaked prunes into Styrofoam cups, which were the only thing I could find to use. As Laurent Manrique and I piped the mousse into the drained prunes, the smell of foie gras and Armagnac filled the air. Daniel Boulud, standing nearby, got a whiff of the Armagnac-prune juice and took a judicious sip from one of the cups.

Just then the late Pierre Franey came ambling down the hall and asked Daniel what we was drinking. “Coffee,” he said with an obvious wink, and offered the cup to Franey. Without thinking, Franey knocked back a swig of fruity Armagnac, and at 10 A.M. got a true French kiss. And the best part was that the live TV cameras were in tow behind him. So after his first big gulp he tried to hide his surprise, with some difficulty. By the second gulp he got it right and kept a straight face.

Prunes soaked in Armagnac are a common item served in Gascony, and when sipped with some of Franey’s “coffee,” they make a lovely after dinner treat.

And for a truly luxurious dessert, try my father’s recipe for prune and Armagnac ice cream. Are you sensing that prunes and Armagnac were made for each other? It’s common knowledge in Gascony.

Ulterior Epicure Prune Armagnac Ice Cream

Prune and Armagnac Ice Cream, photo via flickr user Ulterior Epicure

Ages ago my father, Chef André Daguin, not only pioneered this now-famous recipe, but also was the first to use liquid nitrogen in his kitchen to make it. This was before anyone heard of molecular gastronomy, of course. Get started on this 2 weeks before you want to eat it, so the prunes can really marinate in the Armagnac.

ANDRE DAGUIN’S VANILLA ICE CREAM WITH PRUNES AND ARMAGNAC

Four to six servings –  Preparation time: 25 minutes  -  Standing time: At least 2 weeks  -  Chilling time: Several hours  -  Freezing time: Varies

16 pitted soft prunes
1 cup Armagnac
1 cup whole milk
1 long vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise, giving four quarters—or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks
1/2 to 3/4 cup natural wildflower honey to taste
Pinch of salt
1 cup whipping cream

1. Two weeks or more in advance, place prunes in a large clean jar or crock. Add Armagnac to cover. Cover jar or crock and set aside in a cool place to steep.

2. When ready to make ice cream, measure out 1 cup moderately packed prunes and fill up remainder of cup with Armagnac; set aside. Use remaining prunes for garnish.

3. Scald milk with vanilla bean (but not vanilla extract); set aside. Whisk egg yolks over very low heat in medium, nonreactive saucepan until warm. Continue whisking, adding honey gradually. When all honey is added and honey has begun to dissolve, remove saucepan from heat. Do not boil. Whisk in hot milk and salt.

4. Return saucepan to low heat. Cook and stir until custard is thick enough to coat a spoon heavily, about 170 to 180 degrees on an instant-registering thermometer. Do not boil. Immediately strain mixture into a bowl. Stir in cream and vanilla extract if using.

5. Refrigerate, covered, until very cold. Then beat very vigorously with whisk or electric beaters.

6. Strain custard mixture into an ice cream freezer. Follow manufacturer`s directions for freezing. When ice cream is just beginning to set, drop in prunes one by one (while machine is still in operation) and drizzle in Armagnac. Continue freezing until ice cream is firm.

7. To serve, scoop out ice cream, top with an extra prune, and drizzle some Armagnac over it.

You can cook savory dishes with prunes, too. Roasted with meats like porklamb, rabbit, or game, prunes can offer a bit of sweetness.  A favorite little treat of mine is a prune wrapped in bacon, either duck or pig variety work just fine.

prunes pork

Stuffed Pork Loin with Prunes and Porcini, recipe at dartagnan.com

Whether  coated in chocolate, stuffed with foie gras or Roquefort cheese, soaked in Armagnac, baked in pies and pastries, or simply eaten out of hand on a cheese board, the prune is a ubiquitous part of life in Agen, and a beloved fruit of Southwest France. So Happy Four Prunes Day!  I hope you will enjoy some prunes today, and if you have a little Armagnac, wash them down with that elixir. You can’t go wrong.

Remembering Julia

Ariane Daguin and Julia Child had many things in common – height, boldness, creativity, humor and a healthy dose of irreverence. But the thing that bonded them was their passion for sharing the pleasures of French food with America. While Julia had TV audiences eating out of her hand, she took time to encourage Ariane in the early years of D’Artagnan to help the fledgling business grow.

August 15, 2012 would have been Julia’s 100th birthday and it’s a time to celebrate her life. Here, Ariane reflects on how much Julia meant to her, sharing memories of the culinary icon that inspired a generation, and who continues to do so.

D’Artagnan exists today in part thanks to Julia Child.

First, because she was the initiator of the good food crusade; in our world of gastronomy, there are definitely two Americas: the one before, and the one after Julia!

Certainly, she was the pioneer who elevated good food to a higher priority in this country. Without her, legions of dedicated artisanal suppliers like us, passionate chefs, and prolific writers would not be here today, arguing about the true meaning of organic, what constitutes local and seasonal boundaries, or the proper age of a Berkshire pig to achieve ideal belly fat.

Second, because not only did she help advance the “good food” cause in general, but she also helped me promote D’Artagnan’s mission, in the early days of the company. 

I met Julia while her influence was at its height. She could not participate in a cooking seminar, enter a restaurant, or even cross the street without creating a mob scene. So I learned quickly that once we entered a public place, whether intimate or not, there would be no more one-on-one conversation.

At the time, 28 years ago (when D’Artagnan started), she was actively working to organize the gastronomes of the country, and constantly invited us to participate in her events and gatherings.

When we were together at those gatherings, she would take me under her wing, like a second mother this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

While giggling in French between us, she would make a point to introduce me to everybody in sight who was “somebody.”

I remember, in particular, one of the first conferences of the A.I.W.F. (American Institute of Wine and Food), that she helped create. We had, after she introduced us to each other, extremely animated discussions: one with Calvin Trillin on cooking spare ribs, and the other with Alice Waters, on which kind of thyme can grow where.

At every food show where she knew we were participating, she would come and get me at D’Artagnan’s booth. We would then walk the aisles together, creating an instant mob scene wherever we decided to stop and taste the goods.

The last time I saw Julia was in Boston, just before she left to retire for good in Santa Barbara, CA. She had invited me to do a talk about foie gras, in the afternoon, then brought me to a Les Dames D’Escoffier cocktail event where, as usual, all the guests flocked around her the minute we entered the room. That evening, for the first time, she had to ask for a chair and continued her greetings while seated.

The next day for lunch, she asked me to meet her at Biba, Lydia Shire’s restaurant which was then THE place to be in Boston. I arrived slightly late (visiting chef clients and getting lost in Boston in the morning). When I got there, Julia was already at the table, seated in front of a tall drink that appeared to be tomato juice. Going with what I assumed was the flow, I asked the waiter for a Bloody Mary. To which Julia added, in her unmistakable multi-tone voice: “Oh, what a good idea! Could you make mine one, too?”  At which, Lydia arrived on the double, with a bottle of vodka in hand. Glasses were filled (constantly) and I remember nothing but that sentence that I try, very badly, to imitate once in a while.

It’s wonderful to see the world celebrating her life on the 100th anniversary of her birth this month. But I’m not surprised, because there is no other “food celebrity” that inspires more affection and devotion than Julia. Actually, she was the beginning of our modern concept of a food celebrity. Her personality was so huge and so generous that it came through the TV. Whether she was tossing a limp, American-style baguette over her shoulder in disgust or burning her eyebrows off making bananas flambé, Julia embodied the spirit of adventure in cooking. She was always learning, even as she taught. She made cooking entertaining, took it from drudgery to artistry—and beyond, to fun. And she did it in a very approachable way, making mistakes, dropping things on the floor, the way you do in real life. Suddenly, French food wasn’t so fancy; it was food you could make at home.

It seems to me that you can’t overestimate the importance of a cultural phenomenon like Julia. Without her, would we even have multiple TV channels dedicated to cooking shows? Or so many food blogs?  I think that the cult of the kitchen started with Julia. She made people want to cook, talk about food and challenge themselves in the kitchen. 

And even now, years after her death, her fame grows with biographical books and movies. This month, to celebrate the 100th anniversary, there are restaurants around the country offering special menus of her recipes. But most of all, there are people cooking her recipes at home. That’s her true legacy. She got people to embrace French cuisine in their kitchens, with her confident voice ringing in their ears and her inspired (and tested!) recipes as a guide. Her joie de vivre and passion for food were infectious. Sharing that on her TV show made French food accessible to Americans. It made her a star, and she even created a catchphrase–that sing-song trademark sign off, “bon appétit!”  - Ariane

Cassoulet 101

Perhaps there is no dish in Southwest France more iconic, cherished, and controversial than the cassoulet.

Cassoulet made from our recipe kit, sent in from a customer, Karine.

The name cassoulet comes from the word cassole, referring to the traditional, conical clay pot in which it is cooked (and which the potters of the village of Issel perfected). Cassoulet was originally a food of peasants–a simple assemblage of what ingredients were available: white beans with pork, sausage, duck confit, gizzards, cooked together for a long time. And although it is essentially a humble stew of beans and meat, cassoulet is the cause of much drama and debate. André Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony (and Ariane’s father) says, “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages of Gascony.” Much like chili cook-offs in Texas, cassoulet cooking competitions are held, not only in France, but now even in the United States.

Sun rays shine through the window in this potter's studio in Southwest France. Traditional cassoles air-dry as they wait to be fired and glazed.

The dish has developed an almost mythological importance to the people of Gascony and Languedoc. Legend has it that cassoulet was first created during the Hundred Years War. The story goes that as the British laid siege to Castelnaudary, its people gathered up what ingredients they had left for a large stew to nourish and bolster their defenders. The meal was so hearty and fortifying that the soldiers handily dispelled the invaders, saving the city from occupation. While likely not the true account of the origin of cassoulet, this story establishes the importance of the dish as the symbolic defender of French culture.

Vintage postcard from Languedoc.

The origin of cassoulet is probably the result of more global interactions than the Castelnaudary legend would suggest. Some credit the Arabs for inspiring the dish. In the 12th century they introduced a mutton stew—perhaps the precursor to cassoulet. After Columbus’s voyage the white bean from the Americas was introduced to France and subsequently, Catherine de Medici, queen of France, facilitated the importation of the white bean, which started to be cultivated extensively throughout southwest France.

Cassoulet bubbling in a fire-burning oven in France.

Since its composition is based originally on availability, cassoulet varies from town to town in Southwest France. In Castelnaudary, cassoulet is prepared with duck confit, pork shoulder and sausage. In Carcassonne a cassoulet will typically have mutton, and the Toulouse version has duck confit, Toulouse sausage, and is breaded on top. In Auch, only duck or goose meat is used, and crumbs are never added on top. Even the type of bean is a point of debate. In the southern areas, it must be the Coco, or Tarbais bean, a large and somewhat flat white bean that grows at the foot of the Pyrénées Mountains. A little further north they use flageolet beans. But everyone agrees that, come spring, the last and best cassoulet of the season is made with freshly picked fava beans.

Selection of cassoulet in the market.

The sanctity of cassoulet is taken so seriously that there is even a brotherhood–the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet – that defends the glory and quality of cassoulet in Castelnaudary, in part by conducting surprise taste tests of the cassoulets offered by local chefs. And there is an Academie Universelle du Cassoulet, whose members promote the cassoulet and its significant cultural heritage (they even have a theme song).

Plaque on the outside of a residence in Castelnaudary.

In 2011, France-based British actor, David Lowe, pulled a prank on the people of Castelnaudary putting their pride and defense of the dish to the test. He set up shop in the town market and dressed in British regalia, waving the Union Jack, attempted to hawk British Cassoulet. Needless to say, the people of Castelnaudary fiercely proteced their status as the unofficial world capital of Cassoulet and the video went viral.

.

Cooking
Originally the cassoulet was cooked in the hearth, or a bread baker’s oven, using residual heat. The low heat allowed the beans to break down and all the flavor and fat of the meat to melt into the beans.This can be replicated in the modern kitchen and the process will take only a few hours. Some think cooking a cassoulet is intimidating, but in fact it is quite simple. When making a cassoulet use as many confit meats as possible, which will impart the most flavor, but use only unsmoked bacon, like ventrèche. Don’t hesitate to cut open the upper crust to check if the cassoulet is drying out too much inside as it cooks. If so, add some liquid, like stock or demi-glace. The idea is to form a crusty top on the cassoulet, while maintaining a moist center, so breaking the film that forms as the beans cook is a good thing. Some cookbooks claim that it must be broken seven times to get the perfect cassoulet, but even breaking it and allowing it to reform twice will create a crusty and delicious finish on top (no crumbs needed!). Click here for our version!

Here’s a tasty tune to get you cooking!

New Bumpers Jazz Revival Band playing Cassoulet Stomp!

.

Eating Cassoulet
This rich, heavy bean dish is best enjoyed in cold weather, with a group of family or friends. Part of the magic of a cassoulet is the conviviality that seems always to surround it at the table. Nobody makes just a little cassoulet, so it will generally feed a crowd. The satisfying flavors are complemented by the wines of the Southwest region. A deep-red Madiran is considered the ideal wine to drink with cassoulet, as they both resonate with the same essence of terroir—“sense of place.” One needs little else than a thick slice of country-style bread to accompany cassoulet. And plenty of the aforementioned Madiran wine.

We're ready to dig in!

As Julia Child, the original American who went to Paris and brought back a culinary revolution, memorably said, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.” Bon Appetit!

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,226 other followers