Ragoût Provençale

Ragoût Provençale

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Some days it feels like summer is still with us, but then the sun goes down and the chill begins to extend its insinuating fingers. We are caught between the seasons, clinging to summer, longing for fall. What do we crave to eat?

No longer, most of the time at least, the cool, untaxing light-as-a-breeze quick whims of summer; not yet the steaming and sustaining complexities of the cold months. And we still have the yield of summer’s gardens to enjoy before they disappear for another nine or ten months.  

This menu straddles the seasons: warming but not heavy, simple but not spare. Add a lovely clean salad after the main course—all the lettuces you can find, tossed with a mustardy vinaigrette—and balance on the cusp of the equinox.

Faux Boursin
I was first given this recipe millennia ago when I was studying cooking in Burgundy, near Sens. There it was presented to me as une mélange de Haute-Savoie–“a mixture from the Haute-Savoie,” the mountain region of France that borders on Switzerland. At the time, Boursin was a hot item in America and was hideously expensive.  

While I must hasten to tell you that Philadelphia cream cheese is not what vrai Boursin has as its base, this is nonetheless a tasty and close approximation. You could also make this with a fresh, unaged goat cheese for a bit of extra tang and flavor. Furthermore, you can vary the herbs to your taste: add some fresh rosemary and/or thyme, oregano, marjoram, basil, with or without the parsley.

But remember that these other herbs are far more powerful than parsley, so begin with small quantities and taste (good advice for any recipe). And while you’re at it, please throw away that jar of dried parsley. It has no flavor—never had, never will—and will never earn its keep in anyone’s kitchen.  

As far as mincing the garlic goes, please see “Mincing Garlic” (below): I have a kitchen truc (trick) to share with you that is worth showcasing for future reference. Serve this cheese with sliced baguettes or, even better, with homemade melba toast; the crunch is a nice complement to the richness of the cheese. And it’s a great way to use up leftover baguettes that would just go stale and have to be tossed. Just slice them quite thin, place them on a baking sheet or piece of foil, and let them desiccate and gild in a 250-degree oven, flipping them over once when they start to turn golden.

To make the melange, let an 8-ounce package of cream cheese come to room temperature. With a wooden spoon thoroughly mix in 1 clove garlic, very finely minced; plenty of minced parsley (preferably flat-leafed Italian); 1-2 tablespoons of cream or milk; and salt and pepper to taste. Cover well and chill if you’re making it ahead of time, but please let it return to room temperature before you use it.  

Mincing Garlic
Garlic, as you mince it, becomes very sticky, clinging to your knife and fighting you all the way. Many cooks use a bit of salt to cut the stickiness and provide a bit of abrasive material. I find this not quite enough to keep me unannoyed, so instead I sprinkle my garlic with a bit of water before I start to chop it. First I smash the clove, laying the flat of my knife blade on it and then (carefully) giving it a whack with the heel of my hand. Then I sprinkle on a little water—maybe 1/4 teaspoon per clove at most; start with less and add more if you need it. It makes a world of difference in the frustration level. I used to have some slight qualms about diluting the garlic essence with this method, but then about a year ago Cook’s Illustrated magazine did one of their wonderfully compulsive investigations into sautéing garlic and announced that the best flavor came from sautéing the garlic with a little added water. So there I was, exonerated. The amount of water I use is so small, in any case, that it really has no discernable effect on anything but the mincing process. Give it a try.

Ragoût Provençale
Based on a recipe I cut out of something somewhere many years ago, this stew can be made with beef, lamb, or pork. Just make sure you use the proper cut: you want something tough and full of flavor for any stewed or braised dish, a cut that will become succulent and tender after its long simmering. For beef, chuck is an excellent choice; for lamb or pork, I would use the shoulder. You can also ask your butcher for alternate recommendations. Serve this with buttered pasta (a small tubular shape would be ideal) or, less authentically but also deliciously, saffron rice.  

2 tablespoons flavorful olive oil

2 pounds boneless beef chuck, lamb shoulder, or pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

I large onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon flour

4 plum tomatoes, chopped coarsely and drained, or 1 1/2 cups drained canned plum tomatoes, cut up

1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (or 1 scant teaspoon dried)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves (or 1/4 teaspoon dried)

1 bay leaf

12-24 brine-cured green olives

Salt and pepper to taste

2 medium zucchini, sliced 1/2 inch thick

In a large skillet over medium-high heat brown the meat well (do it in two batches if necessary). Lower the heat to medium, add the onion, and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Then add the garlic and sauté, stirring, until the fragrance is released, about a minute. Sprinkle on the flour evenly and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, white wine, herbs, olives, and salt and pepper to taste (be judicious with the salt, because the olives will provide a lot). Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add the zucchini, cover, and simmer until tender. (If you want to make this a day in advance, do not add the zucchini then. When you’re ready to serve the stew, bring it back to a simmer, then add the zucchini and cook till done). Serves 6. 
 Peaches Stuffed with Amaretti
This is based on a recipe of Julia Child’s for Poires au Gratin. I think it’s even better with peaches, because any stone fruit (peaches, plums, apricots) is a perfect match with the almond flavor of amaretti cookies, which are now generally made from almonds but were originally made from the kernels inside apricot pits. As the cold weather progresses, if you do use pears, select ripe but firm ones; peel them and slice about 1/2-inch thick. Apples are another good possibility.
Peel 6 ripe but very firm peaches by plunging them into boiling water for 30 seconds, then into cold water; the skins will then slip off easily with the aid of the point of a paring knife. (You can skip peeling the peaches if you must.)

Halve the peaches along the crease, then place cut sides up in a well-buttered shallow baking dish, preferably one just big enough to hold them.  
Stir together 1/2 cup apricot jam and 1/3 cup dry white wine or vermouth; spoon evenly over the peaches.

Crumble 6 amaretti coarsely with your fingers and distribute evenly in the peach cavities.  
Dot with 2 tablespoons butter.

Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until the top has browned lightly.  
Serve hot, warm, or cold, with crème fraîche or heavy cream.

 Serves 6.


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