Holiday cooking

Bastille Day cooking made easy: How to conjure a rustic, fabulous French summer feast

This year's Bastille Day feast starts with make-ahead smoked trout pâté, served with crackers and endive leaves.

This year's Bastille Day feast starts with make-ahead smoked trout pâté, served with crackers and endive leaves.

Because I'm almost French (I've been married to a Frenchman for almost 22 years; one of these days I'll get around to applying for French citizenship), I love to celebrate Bastille Day. Going to a restaurant isn't usually what I feel like doing, partly because there aren't many good French restaurants in Dallas, where we live.

Referred to in France as le Quatorze Juillet, or la Fête Nationale, or la Fêt' Nat – never Bastille Day – the holiday rarely falls on a weekend, which creates a quandary: How to pull together something deliciously French after working all day?

This year, I think I found the answer: Make it rustic and easy, prepare a couple things the night before, invite friends over after work and light up the grill. 

Mikie's marinated olives can be made the night before.

Mikie's marinated olives can be made the night before.

Laid-back apps – like marinated olives, asparagus vinaigrette, a freeform savory tart, maybe a saucisson or some store-bought pâté with baguette toasts – are totally festive with glasses of rosé, chilled Lillet garnished with orange slices, or (my favorite!) Ricard. 

Or hey – why not pour a pet nat, since it rhymes with Fêt' Nat! What's a pet nat? It's short for pétillant naturel – the natural sparkling wines, often from France, that are hugely popular in wine circles these days. (If you're new to the natural wine phenom, here's an excellent article, co-authored by my friend Michalene, explaining it.) 

Flipping through award-winning cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan's beautiful new book, La Vie Rustic: Cooking & Living in the French Style, I found plenty of delicious-looking inspiration, starting with her super-easy recipe for smoked trout pâté. 

Honestly, it couldn't be easier: You just mash together smoked trout with crème fraîche, lemon zest, chopped tarragon and one or two other things, pack it in a crock and that's it. While you can make it just before serving (in no time flat), it's the perfect thing to mix up the previous evening and let chill in the fridge. Serve it with Belgian endive leaves and crackers or toasts. Brennan writes in her book that it also works well with smoked salmon – something I'll be trying soon (with dill or fennel leaves, probably!). 

Also inspired by Brennan's book, I've lately become addicted to grilled artichokes. But while Brennan serves them with a yogurt-and-mayo-based herb dip (which also looks really good), I've been pairing mine with garlicky aïoli, one of my favorite substances in the world. This summer I can't get enough of it.

The artichokes can be mostly prepared the night before, as well – boil them, trim out their chokes, stash them in the fridge and make the aïoli (which probably even gets better as it sits overnight; the garlic mellows). When you're ready to serve them, just brush the artichoke halves with a little olive oil and plop them on the grill – along with halved lemons as a squeezable garnish, if you like.

For a main course, you can keep it super simple: Throw some duck breasts or a butterflied leg of lamb on the grill. You can even pick up a roast chicken (very French!) or two at the supermarket; serve it with Dijon mustard and cornichons, and French side dishes. You can blanch some haricots verts, for instance, and toss them with a little red wine vinegar, your best olive oil and some minced shallots; finish with fleur de sel and lots of freshly ground black pepper. 

Or make a warm French lentil salad – which you can either toss together in less than a half hour and serve warm, or prepare the night before and serve room temp.

Here's the easy, forgiving recipe:

Or, you know what? You can even do without a main course altogether, and just serve a bunch of delicious nibbles – French wine-bar-style. 

For dessert, there are lots of possibilities. One of the easiest is also one of the most delicious: a berry and peach crisp. Put the almond topping together the night before, and it's very quick to put together and throw in the oven. Top it with whipped cream, or crème fraîche (you should have some left over from the smoked trout pâté), or a combo. Or serve it with vanilla ice cream. 

Otherwise, if you make pastry cream the night before, you can put together a quick and easy berry tart – with the colors of the French flag!

Here are those two recipes:

Alternatively, you could make a chocolate mousse or pôt de crème the night before (yikes - I need to create some chocolate French recipes for the site – will do that soon!) Or play hooky from work and make a gorgeous stone-fruit tart. Or make profiterôles – cream puffs filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. That's another easy recipe I'll put together soon.

You could also do what so many French people do – pick up something lovely at the bakery.

Or take a tip from my French relatives, and slice up a ripe peach into the glass of red wine you've been sipping. It can't get any easier – or more delicious – than that.

So, want more ideas? Take a spin through Cooks Without Borders' French page – updated recently with a bunch of new recipes. Sound good?

Happy Bastille Day! Vive la France!




Congratulations: You have found the Brussels sprouts recipe of your dreams

It's a Brussels sprouts world; we just live in it. 

Did you hate them once upon a time? It's understandable: In olden days (like 10 years ago), people would boil those little orbs, so biting into one was like eating a small head of boiled cabbage. Ugh.

No more. Now we now that you can roast 'em or sauté them, and they're delicious. My favorite Brussels sprouts dish involves pulling off every leaf, then slicing the centers, and sautéing it all with mirepoix and pancetta. Very delicious, and very labor-intensive.

This recipe is almost as wonderful – and 9 billion times easier. It's a no-brainer. You can cook this with your eyes closed. You can make it ahead, and serve it later, reheated. Or serve it right away. Or serve it room temp. 

All you do is this. Cut the Brussels sprouts in half or quarters, depending on their size. Toss them on a baking sheet with a little olive oil and diced pancetta. You can even cheat and buy the pancetta already diced, at Trader Joe's. I won't tell anybody.  My little brother Johnny, an ex-chef, taught me that trick. If Johnny says it's okay, it's okay. 

Want to make a vegan version? Just leave out the pancetta and add about a quarter teaspoon of salt.

Roast the sprouts in a hot oven for 25 minutes. Boom, that's it. You're done. You're ready to eat – with whatever gorgeous roast or braise or take-out you've dreamed up. Vegan or not, here we come.

Be sure to drop us a comment and tell us how you liked it.

Blood orange panna cotta makes a dramatically divine (and surprisingly easy!) dessert

Blood oranges are the beach vacations of winter ingredients.

Huh? What? 

You know: It's cold out, and maybe gloomy. Maybe it's snowing. Maybe you have cabin fever. Maybe you're dreaming of stretching out on the sand on the Mayan Riviera under the sun, with crystal clear turquoise-colored water lapping at your toes. 

I'd love that, too. 

But instead, I'm going to reach for the next best thing: blood oranges. How lovely that something so juicy, so deliciously vibrant and summer-like comes into season in the dead of winter – and sticks around till May. 

A good part of their allure is visual. When they're whole, they look almost like regular oranges, but notice their slight rosacea blush. Slice one open, and it's gorgeous, its segments streaked in shades of crimson and and ruby red and blackberry. Now taste: They have a lovely flavor, sort of like oranges tinged with berry, or yes – cassis. 

In the United States, they're grown in California and Texas (two of the three states I have called home!). But I associate them with Rome, I think because once upon a time when I visited, I breakfasted on a hotel rooftop where they served crusty rolls with good butter – and glasses of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice. 

For cooks, blood oranges are a boon, as they're both delicious and dramatic. Count on them to elicit oohs and aaahs at the dinner table – especially if you spoon them over a delicately sweet, trembly-soft blood-orange-flavored panna cotta, Italy's famous custard-like dessert. 

Made from warmed, sweetened cream set with gelatin, panna cotta isn't a Roman dessert; it comes from Piedmont, according to The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, which also points out that it is "usually flavored with vanilla" (which I knew) "and peach brandy" (which I did not know). Often, the entry continues, it is served with fruit after it is unmolded, or with genuine balsamic vinegar. (Something to try! Though not with the supermarket stuff that passes for balsamic vinegar.) "It is increasingly popular with enthusiasts of the lighter side of Italian food," the 2007 book's entry concludes.

Indeed. Over the last decade, panna cotta has become a hugely popular restaurant dessert.

Happily, it is incredibly easy to make at home: In most versions, you bloom powdered gelatin over cold milk, then stir in cream that's been warmed just enough to dissolve sugar in it, cool the mixture, pour into custard cups, chill till they're set, then unmold just before serving. David Lebovitz, one of my favorite food bloggers, wrote recently, "if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you're taking too long!" He's not exaggerating.

Blood orange compote

Flavoring a classic panna cotta with blood orange juice gives it a delightful new dimension.  It's wonderful on its own, but top it with a compote of blood oranges and it becomes positively spectacular.  

A few thoughts about the panna cotta itself, before we get to the blood orange compote. Traditionally, it's made with cream, which makes a really rich and thick panna cotta. I like my panna cotta lighter – and more silky than velvety – so I swap out most of the cream for half-and-half. And I don't want it too stiff: soft and trembly is the idea, so I use the minimum amount of gelatin possible in order for it to hold its shape (more or less) after unmolding. (If you want yours to be a little stiffer, add an extra half a teaspoon of gelatin to the three teaspoons my recipe calls for.) 

Because it involves blood orange juice, my recipe is a little different from the traditional one: You sprinkle the gelatin over blood orange juice, let it sit, then heat it up and dissolve the sugar in the juice. Let it cool a little, then stir in the half-and-half, cream and either vanilla or orange liqueur. Pour it into custard cups (which you've lightly oiled) and let them set up in the fridge. 

While they're setting, you can make the compote; for this the only real work involved is cutting the oranges. If you're comfortable slicing suprèmes, go for it – they make a beautiful presentation. (That's what's shown above.) To do this, use a sharp paring knife to cut all the peel and pith off each orange, then slice between each membrane to release the segments, freeing them of all the membranes. With a little practice, it becomes very easy. (Here's a good walk-through on the technique from Serious Eats – scroll down to "Citrus Suprèmes" to find it.)

If you don't want to sweat it, just cut the peel and pith off the outside of each blood orange, slice it, then quarter the slices. It'll still be really pretty.

When you're slicing, be sure to capture all the juice that escapes –  you'll need half a cup for the compote. You might want to have an extra blood orange or two on hand just in case you don't capture enough juice. Heat that juice with some sugar, and cook it down till it's syrupy, then stir in a spoonful of Cognac or other brandy and pour it all over the orange segments. 

When you're ready to serve it, run a small, sharp knife around the edge of each custard cup, then invert it onto a plate or shallow bowl and let the panna cotta unmold. Sometimes you have to give it a little nudge with butter knife to release it. Divide the blood orange compote over the panna cottas and serve.

Alternately, if you don't want to unmold the panna cotta – either because it makes you nervous or you prefer a different look – you can serve the panna cotta in a wine glass or dessert glass and simply spoon some of the compote over it. 

I happen to think it's the perfect light dessert to follow a rich holiday dinner. Yes, like roast duck! Or a crown roast of pork, or a prime rib.  It's also a great finish to a lighter New Year's Eve dinner – maybe steamed lobsters, or other seafood. 

I know what you're thinking: Recipe, please! Here you go . . . 

Meanwhile, here's some good news: Blood oranges have a nice, long season – they're usually available into May in California and Texas. So if you happen to fall in love it this dessert – or with the blood oranges themselves (they're wonderful eat out of hand, as long as you're not wearing a white tee-shirt) – this could be the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship. 



Ta-dah! This glorious roast lacquered duck is a game-changer for duck-lovers

Ten months ago, a recipe for Chinese lacquered roast chicken from Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes changed my life. It's brilliant and simple, and because it changed my life, I thought that was the end of that, recipe-development-wise. But the first time I wrote about it, my friend Michalene said, provocatively, "Have you tried it on a duck?"

I couldn't wait to give it a go. Unfortunately, it flopped: The duck's skin burned before the meat was cooked enough.

A mission was launched. I felt this duck could work, and I would find a way to make it work – even if I had to roast a hundred ducks. 

The very next try I got incredibly lucky – hitting the timing and temperature exactly right. What I got is what you see here: a gorgeous, shining, crisp-skinned duck whose meat was perfectly seasoned, wonderfully tender and incredibly succulent and flavorful. I couldn't believe something that insanely delicious was that easy to achieve. I made some Chinese steamed buns to go with it, and served it with cilantro, sliced scallions and hoisin sauce from a jar. But the duck needed no accouterments – it was incredible on its own.

Carving this gorgeous duck was  almost  as fun as eating it.

Carving this gorgeous duck was almost as fun as eating it.

You don't have to give it an Asian spin, though. The duck works beautifully as the centerpiece of a festive European- or American-style feast, surrounded by things like roast potatoes or sweet potato gratin and Brussels sprouts or braised Tuscan kale. 

Here's how easy the killer duck is to achieve.  It takes some time – two days – but very little effort.

Two days before you're going to serve it, you paint the bird with a glaze made from half-honey and half-soy sauce, and scatter salt on it. Slide it (uncovered) on a pan in the fridge. Next day, paint the bird all over again with the leftover glaze, and let it sit uncovered in the fridge overnight again. Next day, roast the bird at 450 for ten minutes, turn the temp down to 325 and let the bird roast for two hours. 

That's it. No flipping the bird or basted or fussing about it in any way. No need to make a sauce to go with it – it's that delicious. It's the perfect dreamy dinner for two or three people.

But here come the holidays, I thought. Wouldn't it be great to make two ducks and make them star of a dinner for four two six? So I invited a couple of friends over, and made glazed two ducks. Into the oven they went, and when my friends arrived, the house was filled with their enchanting aroma.

An hour later, after nibbles and drinks and general optimistic glee, we took our seats at the table. But these two ducks were not as wonderful: Set just next to each other on their rack set in a sheet pan, they crowded each other, preventing even browning. One side of each bird was a wee bit flabby, and I had to turn them and leave them in the oven longer, monkeying with the temperature to brown them properly.

Back to the store I went, seeking more ducks. 

Fresh ducks have a funny way of showing up in stores at exactly the moment I'm not planning on making one. It's just like the hair-dryer in the hotel rule. If you pack a hair dryer, you'll find one in your hotel room when you check in. If you don't pack one, you won't find one.

Serve the lacquered ducks with roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes or sweet potatoes, and you've got an American-style holiday feast.

Serve the lacquered ducks with roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes or sweet potatoes, and you've got an American-style holiday feast.

So, with two more friends invited for Saturday night duck dinner, on Wednesday I headed to the Whole Foods Market where I'd recently seen those gorgeous fresh ducks – at a much lower price than the last place I picked up a couple. (They set me back a whopping $45 each at Central Market; at Whole Foods they wanted $30-something each for 4 1/2 to 5 pound ducks.) When I arrived at Whole Foods this time, alas, there were no ducks to be had. I almost called another Whole Foods, when I thought better of it, deciding instead to head to the giant Asian supermarket, Super H-Mart, that's only a 10-minute longer drive from home. 

I thought I'd find fresh ducks at Super H-Mart, but I only found frozen ones. That was the bad news. The great news: The nice-looking Long Island ducks were only $16.50 apiece. Fortunately, they defrosted quickly enough for me to glaze them on Thursday. 

This time I solved the even-browning problem: I set them as far apart on the sheet pan as I could before roasting them. I thought I'd have to rotate the birds halfway through roasting for even browning, but those ducks continued to brown evenly as I looked in in them now and then. The space between them did the trick. Oh, man, they looked good – and they were!

This time I served them more Euro- or American-style: We started dinner with a baby kale and sweet-potato salad, then had the duck with roast potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta. It was a super-easy dinner to put together, as I literally never turned on the stove. (I'm lucky enough to have two ovens, though you could always make the potatoes ahead of time and reheat them and roast the Brussels sprouts while the duck is resting.) 

I'll let you go now. I know you'll want to run off and procure a duck or two. 

Here's the recipe:

Be sure to let us know how you love it! And happy holidays from Cooks Without Borders.



Turkey tetrazzini is the mac and cheese of Thanksgiving leftover dishes

You've had your fun with the turkey. Now you want the tetrazzini. 

What? Never made it or even tasted it? If you love mac and cheese, this is for you – it has that some kind of old-fashioned comfort-food creamy, luscious appeal.

In fact, I always make a bigger bird than I think I'll need for Thanksgiving so I'm sure to have four cups or so of leftover turkey meat after everyone has had their fill of next-day bone-gnawing.

It's pretty simple to achieve. Boil up half a box of spaghetti. Sauté some mushrooms. Make a white sauce by sprinkling flour on the mushrooms, cooking till the flour loses its raw taste, whisking in chicken broth and milk (or a combo of milk and half-and-half, if you want it richer, or even all half-and-half), then cooking till it's thick and creamy. Stir in chopped turkey, the spaghetti, grated Parmesan cheese and seasoning and turn it into a buttered baking dish. Top with Parmesan-enriched bread crumbs and bake till the top is golden-brown.

Then serve it up. Underneath that golden-brown, crunchy top it's rich, creamy and savory: old-fashioned comfort food at its best.

Preceded by a simple green salad and joined by a glass of full-bodied white wine, it's the perfect post-Thanksgiving dinner. 


Crazy-good classics: Leslie Brenner's favorite Thanksgiving dishes

One day in the early autumn of 2006, a conversation I had with one of my colleagues at The Los Angeles Times, where I was Food Editor at the time, would change Thanksgiving for me forever. And not just me: What came out of that conversation -- with my colleague Russ Parsons, a longtime food editor, staff writer, cookbook author and one of the best cooks I've ever had the pleasure to know -- changed Thanksgiving for dedicated home cooks all over America.

Russ was somewhat obsessed at the time with technique for roasting poultry (and other meats) practiced by Judy Rodgers, the gifted chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. (Rodgers passed away in 2013). If you've ever been to Zuni Cafe or cooked from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, you may have feasted on its famous roast chicken. The secret behind its incredible flavor, succulence and crisp, golden-brown skin is generously salting the bird a day or two before you roast it, then letting the skin air-dry for hours. It's a trick Rodgers learned from old-school home cooks in the French countryside. Try roasting a chicken this way, and you'll never do anything else.

Anyway, I was as enamored of the technique as Russ was. One day I said to Russ, "Hey, Russ, have you ever tried giving a turkey the Judy treatment?" 

A look of amazement crept across Russ' smiling face. I think he ran out of the office without looking back -- eager to get his hands on a turkey and try it.

In the following weeks, Russ developed the technique for the turkey -- he called it dry-brining. It was a smashing success. The flesh was incomparably flavorful, with a wonderful smooth texture, and fabulous crisp, golden-brown skin. The technique was a snap, there was no basting, and no wrestling the bird into a bucket of brine and finding a way to store it during the week when refrigerator space is at such a premium.

At the paper we did comparative tastings -- of turkeys roasted after conventional wet-brining (always good, but an unwieldy mess), and high-temperature roasted birds and steam-roasted birds (another technique we were loving then). The dry-brined bird blew the other turkeys out of the water.

Russ tweaked and refined the technique, we published the recipe and our readers went crazy for it. Within a couple of years it had been picked up by papers and magazines all over the country. Now if you ask a serious home-cook how they make their Thanksgiving turkey, likely as not they'll say they dry-brine.

I can't even imagine doing it any other way: It's that good. That's why, from that season on, a dry-brined turkey has always been the centerpiece of my Thanksgiving table. (Thank you, Judy! thank you, Russ!)

Meanwhile, for me Thanksgiving isn't the time I feel like experimenting and being adventurous; it's the day I want to sink my teeth into dishes I know and love. I crave familiar flavors. For me Thanksgiving is the day to celebrate comfort food. (Probably the fact that as I restaurant critic I'm constantly tasting new things every night, rarely able to zero in on something I just happen to love, has something to do with it . . . ) 

Therefore, I always make the same things, year after year after year. The dry-brined turkey. A really good Cognac sauce (not gravy!). Chestnut-porcini stuffing. Brussels sprouts leaves with pancetta and mirepoix. And a luscious, savory sweet-potato gratin. You'll find recipes for all of the above in this post. I also serve a simple cranberry sauce and a relish tray, and for dessert, it's classic pumpkin pie all the way. 

So, back to our turkey. As Russ has always pointed out, the path to the magnificent bird is really more a technique than a recipe. 

All you do is apply Kosher salt -- quite a lot of it -- to the surface of the turkey. Seal it in a plastic zipper bag. Let it sit for three days in the fridge, during which time the salt works its magic on the flesh. By the end of three days, the salt will have soaked in. You take the bird out of its bag, its flesh moist but not wet at this point, and let it air-dry in the fridge for six or eight hours. The roasting part couldn't be easier: Start it breast-down on a rack in a roasting pan at high heat, turn it breast up, drop the temperature and let it finish roasting like that. That's it. No basting is necessary. The bird will be brilliant.

In case you're not yet a dry-brining convert, I'm excited to share the technique and recipe with you.

Along with the recipe you'll find my personal contribution: the really good sauce. It's not a gravy, but a sauce -- made by deglazing the roasting pan with Cognac. Ready for the recipes? Here you go . . . 

Now let's talk about the sides.

Naturally there has to be stuffing, and my stuffing of choice is one made from country bread enriched with chestnuts, porcini mushrooms and lots of celery and herbs. It was inspired by the stuffing my mom always made -- which didn't have mushrooms, but did have lots of rich roasted chestnuts.

And she taught me a trick that gives it amazing body and texture: add a lightly beaten egg or two. I used to stuff my turkey, and make additional stuffing to bake outside the bird. But in recent years I've chosen to keep the roasting simpler and quicker (and probably safer, from a food-safety point of view) and just bake the stuffing in a casserole outside of the bird. Honestly, I find it to be just as delicious. 

Here's the stuffing recipe:

Onto the potato question. I know there are people in the world who serve both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, but that's not the way I was raised. Chez nous, it was sweet potatoes all the way. 

In my house, we were spared the candy-sweet concoctions involving marshmallows and pineapple. But I did grow up with sweet potatoes that were given a brown-sugar boost. They weren't terribly sweet, but they were sweeter than I liked; I'm a huge fan of sweet potatoes' deeply sweet natural flavor. The sweet potato recipe of my dreams walked into my life the year after Russ developed his "Judy bird," as he called it, when my friend Regina Schrambling published her recipe for a savory sweet potato gratin -- also in the L.A. Times.  

I've made it every year since: It's a simple dish, achieved by peeling and slicing sweet potatoes, layering them -- seasoned -- in a baking dish, pouring a mixture of heavy cream and fresh thyme over them and baking. 

Yes, it's super-simple. And really killer. I hope you'll love it as much as I do.

Finally, a green veg. Many years ago (fifteen maybe? I'm guessing...) I fell in love with a recipe in Chez Panisse Cooking for Brussels sprouts leaves with pancetta and mirepoix (mirepoix is the classic trio of diced onion, celery and carrot). It was long before the Brussels sprouts craze took hold; I remember telling a friend this was a Brussels sprouts dish for people who didn't like Brussels sprouts. 

To be perfectly honest, it's a bit of a pain in the ass to prepare, as it requires pulling all the leaves off of each Brussels sprout. But the payoff is great: You get all the wonderful Brussels sprouts flavor -- heightened by mirepoix and pancetta -- without the dense texture of biting into a little cabbage-head. Bertolli's dish, made bright and lively with a splash of vinegar at the end, is light, airy, vibrant and super-flavorful. 

OK, I hope that's enough to get you inspired for the big day. I always round things out with classic pumpkin pie and a straightforward cranberry sauce.  With any luck, I'll manage to put recipes for those in your hands by the time Thanksgiving rolls around. 

Have any questions -- about planning, cooking these dishes, anything? Do let me know in a comment -- I'd love to hear from you and I'll do my best to help!