Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do Not Soak This Pan!

....or you'll be throwing away the good stuff.

This is called tahdig, and it's about the most fun you'll have eating rice--sort of a rice crispy treat for grown-ups. In its purest form, tahdig is simply what is scraped out of the bottom of the rice pot. After you've dumped the cooked rice into a bowl, take a flexible spatula and work around the edges of what's stuck to the bottom of the pot, flip it over, sprinkle it with a little salt or any seasoning that makes you happy, and you have a great snack.
 The flipside: crusty and crunchy and fun to eat.

Tahdig traditionally was reserved for guests in Iranian households. But it's so popular now that it's on the menu in many Persian restaurants as a regular feature, meaning there must be some way to make it in quantity, right? Appliance manufacturers picked up on tahdig's popularity and began producing rice cookers especially for making tahdig.
Tahdig: recooked with butter

While I've found dozens of recipes for making it--the Internet is loaded with them--I cheated and made some by melting butter in a skillet, pressing some cooked rice into the bottom and letting it recook on low heat until the moisture was evaporated and the rice browned. Then I sprinkled it with a little southwestern seasoning and munched out.

We should probably keep this between us, you know? If the snack food giants discover how satisfying this stuff is, they're sure to waste tons of rice in the process of making a sad facsimile that is loaded with salt and devoid of character. But if you happen to have a particularly great method for making it, will you please share it with the rest of us? Thanks!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Week #28 Himalayan

"I'm sorry, we've run out of karma," is not exactly what you expect to hear someone say in a restaurant.

But Himself and I were at Tibet Nepal House in Old Town Pasadena, and the server was telling the people at the next table that one of the restaurant's Himalayan beers was out of stock.

No worries for us, because we were sipping Old Monk Super Beer and enjoying its smoky flavor. While our server called it a "heavy beer," it's what we in the States call malt liquor. Later I looked it up online to see what I could learn. The reviews were quite savage (one said it "smells like an old man's head." Yeesh! I'm glad I read this after I drank it!). I'm not a fan of malt liquor, but I suspect the problem was more a lack of context. Reviewers no doubt were picking up a bottle sitting on the back of a shelf in some specialty store--who knows how long it had been there?--carrying it home and tasting it without the benefit of the food it was created to accompany. Then there's the fact that this beer was produced in India and probably underwent repeated temperature changes en route to the States, which will ruin most any beverage or food. C'est la vie!, however you say that in Nepali.
Maasu Mo-Mo
We started our meal with maasu mo-mo, that is, steamed dumplings stuffed with lamb. With them came two sauces: a mint and cilantro sauce that was wonderfully fragrant, and a hot red sauce that contained some serious heat. Mo-mo is yet another example of those stuffed pasta-type items you find in cuisines all over the world. This Himalayan version is a popular between-meal snack.
 Himself ordered the "house specialized platter" of Himalayan sekuwa, or clay oven-roasted meat. The platter contained a nice assortment of shrimp, lamb and two types of chicken scattered over a bed of sweet onions. The meats were marinated in a mixture of yogurt and regional spices and flavorings, which includes turmeric, cumin, garam masala, black pepper, cilantro and garlic. The blend of these flavors along with the bite of the yogurt and the smoky char provided by the clay oven made this dish worth gorging on. I'm convinced sekuwa could make a carnivore of a vegan, but then who's to say that treating veggies or tofu to the same flavor fest wouldn't make them equally yummy? It would be worth a try, but I'm sticking with the meat all the same.
Annapurna Yak: Looks a bit like fajitas without the tortillas, eh?
When there's anything as out of the ordinary as yak on the menu, you know I'm bound to try it. From among several options I selected Annapurna yak: pan-fried yak meat with green and red bell peppers, onion, tomato and Himalayan spices. This dish looks pretty much like fajitas, right? Wrap some up in a piece of naan, and you might just believe that. But the seasonings are quite different and the meat isn't beef, it's yak. Having sampled yak cheese a couple of years ago, I expected the meat to be rather gamy and strongly flavored, but this was not the case. Know how people often say of a meat they're unfamiliar with that it "tastes like chicken?" Well, yak is very beef-like in texture and flavor, which is mild, unlike the yak cheese and butter, which are often described as "rancid."
Chyamtange Dhopzi
Instead of naan we opted for chyamtange dhopzi, a flat, leavened bread made of finely stone-ground whole-wheat flour and baked in a clay oven. Himself deemed it a cross between naan and pita. It's crispy outside and soft inside and made without salt. While it doesn't open quite as easily as a pita, still, you can separate the layers and load it with bites of food if you'd like. Or use it to sop up juices, to dunk into dips and to push bits of food onto your fork.
Sho Jhaa, or Tibetan buttered tea
Sho jhaa, a Himalayan specialty, is buttered tea, traditionally made with yak butter. Since that's not so readily available in the United States, mine was made with regular cow's milk butter. It was rich, slightly salty and not at all sweet. Authentic sho jhaa is described as being almost broth-like, so rich is its consistency. When a butter as durable as that made from yak milk is emulsified into really strong tea, a few cups of the resulting brew will fortify you for whatever lies ahead in the frozen expanses of what is called "The Roof of the World."

If you've read Three Cups of Tea, you may recall Greg Mortenson talking about the necessity of taking buttered tea in this region. While the flavor and texture are curious, I have a feeling it's one of those things that, if you drank it every day, you'd miss it after you left. There's something curiously welcoming about it. I thought I might try my hand at making buttered tea at home, that is until I found that it involves boiling tea leaves for several hours and then incorporating the butter into the tea using a churn! I'd imagine that Himalayan households keep fires burning fairly constantly, and so have tea always at the ready.

I decided instead to turn my focus to making daal bhaat, the national dish of Nepal. Essentially it is a lentil soup served over rice, quick and easy to make, tasty and nourishing. I'm including the recipe at the bottom of this blog entry. As you can see from this photo, mine turned out rather stew like, but you can always add more liquid if you like to make it soupier.
Daal Bhaat
Our server clued us in on a few differences between Tibetan and Nepalese cuisines, the main ones being that Tibetan food is milder, while Nepalese is quite spicy. Rice grows easily in Nepal, so its dishes are rice based, while Tibetan fare includes noodles, since Tibet has little arable land for rice production.

It was interesting to hear our server outlining the characteristics that distinguish Tibetan and Nepalese cooking. To most of us, those points might seem insignificant. But to him, they were not. We all have our points of national and state pride. If you're from one coast or the other in the United States, it would be easy for the distinctions of different states or at least regions in the "flyover states" to blur, but to those of us who actually hail from one of those states, the characteristics that distinguish us as Southerners, Midwesterners and the like are quite pronounced. Likewise, the Himalayas may be the world's most formidable mountains, but the valleys that finger into them each hold their own distinctive culinary traditions.

As for our foray into Himalayan cuisine, our karma was very good indeed.

Daal Bhaat (lentil soup with rice)
4-6 servings

¼ cup + 2 Tbsp. mixed lentils
2 tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. butter
chili pepper, minced, to taste (no particular type, so go with your instincts and taste)
a handful of fresh cilantro leaves removed from stems
fresh garlic and fresh ginger, minced, to taste
garam masala, to taste (you can use a store-bought version, but try making your own—for every cook who makes it there is a different version of garam masala!)

Wash rice (basmati is best and most authentic) and let it stand in the water in which it will be cooked while you prepare the lentils.

Boil lentils in 5 cups of water. Once they are cooked, after about 20 minutes, turn off the heat, stir in the garam masala and ginger (I use 1 Tbsp. of each) and set aside. Do not drain.

Melt butter in a medium-sized skillet and sauté the onion, garlic and tomato. Stir this mixture into the lentils, along with the coriander.

Cook rice according to directions on the package. Salt daal to taste, spoon rice into soup bowls and ladle daal over the rice.

*Because the cilantro and ginger are stirred in after the cooking is finished, their freshness brightens the earthiness of the lentils and the dense flavor of the garam masala.

Based on a recipe available from

Monday, March 22, 2010

Throw a Party & Roll Your Own

I recently discovered that I've accumulated quite a few photos of pasta making parties from the past year. Himself and I agree that those evenings were some of the best and most fun we've ever had. Anyone can make pasta alone, but making it in a group is such fun. All you need is a pasta rolling machine, a few appetizers, a handful of friends, some wine and a little music, and the party makes itself--and dinner! Let's face it--it just doesn't seem like work at all when you're with friends.

Pasta is one of those things that, the more you make it, the easier it is to do. And there's nothing quite as pleasurable as a bowl of the fresh stuff--you'll swear off boxed pasta, for sure. You can get a good, basic hand-crank pasta maker for $30 to $40, so it's not a budget breaker. I've seen the nonas in Italy turn out tons of pasta using only their rolling pins, but you'd probably lose a few people if you tried that. Plus, the hand-crank machine itself is kinda fun.
Andy's getting the hang of making dough from scratch.

 Or IS he?

Ally masters the ins and outs of the pasta maker, no prob. 

 Heirloom tomato salad with fresh burrata on a toasted baguette is a good starter to nibble on while you wait for your turn with the crank. But anything--olives, bruschetta, whatever--is great. 

Mark's quickly gotten the ravioli stuffing down to an art (this guy is a physicist, so I knew pasta making would be a snap for him). 

 Ally cuts the ravioli while a pot of boiling water awaits... Yeah, that's a six-quart Kitchen Aid mixer in the background, but I'm not interested in getting the pasta making attachment for it. The hand-crank model is more textural and more satisfying.

 The ravioli shouldn't all be of uniform shape and size. If it is, it will look store bought, and you don't want anyone thinking that when you've done the work yourself. But the size should be consistent enough that it will all cook in the same amount of time--and fresh pasta takes only a couple of minutes in the boiling water.

Maybe black isn't the best color to wear when you're playing in the flour. By the time Missi and I finished, it looked like we'd been dusting for fingerprints. Of course, you can always look at your clothing and play a game called "Who touched me THERE?!"

Missi and Casey got a little competitive with their pasta making. I think she's trying to distract him while he's at work here...

Back in the fall Himself and I spent a weekend in Santa Barbara making pasta for a photo shoot for "Endless Pastabilities," a story I wrote for Edible Santa Barbara. We all had a blast turning out dough and pasta, scavenging in the garden for fresh ingredients and discussing the unlimited things you can do to create unique pasta dishes.
 Lights! Camera! Action!

I'm such a spokesmodel for fresh pasta!

Fresh herbs pressed between two sheets of fresh pasta dough makes a lovely presentation.

While you can accomplish this alone, it's good to have an extra pair of hands near by when you're feeding the pasta through the press.

This dough with fresh herbs laminated into it is lovely stuff--tasty, too!

Everyone pitched in, including editor Krista and photographer Steve.

When all the work was done and all the photos taken, we sat down to a dinner of five different pastas, including pasta made with pistachio flour and dressed with cardamom, dried apricot and toasted pistachios; chestnut flour pasta dressed with jalapeno peppers, fresh mint leaves and cacao nibs; and regular pasta dough with fresh herbs pressed inside of it and tossed with some good olive oil and a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano.

If you've made the sauce and the ravioli filling in advance, then you can pour some wine and focus on taking turns making pasta. But please, please please...if you're going to have a pasta-making party, don't embarrass yourself by using store-bought sauce! If it's springtime, pasta primavera is in order--just grab what's in your garden or what you've picked up at the farmers' market. A basic pasta sauce of crushed tomatoes, garlic, a handful of fresh herbs, a few red pepper flakes and a couple finely minced anchovies, cooked for just a few minutes is bliss in a bowl (and for those of you who don't like anchovies, fear not--you won't taste them, you'll only get a richness of flavor that rounds out the other ingredients).

I invite you to stage your own pasta making party and send me your stories and photos. Hmm, is "invite" the appropriate word, or should I say "challenge?" If the pasta turns out disastrously, you can still have a good laugh about it and then order a pizza--that is, until I tell you why you MUST make your own!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Week #27 Swedish

If you're looking for Scandinavian food in Los Angeles, good luck with that. Actually, we did find some, but you just don't "go out for Swedish" here like you can for Italian or Chinese, or even Ethiopian.

So dusting off the cookbooks was in order, in my case, Culinaria's collection of European specialties. Since Sweden is the land that gave us the smörgåsbord, I decided to make some dishes you'd typically find on one, or at least on an authentic one. None of this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spread on a long table like you tend to find in American feeding trough-style restaurants.

Ikea has a market of prepared Swedish foods, so we forged past all the amusingly named furniture to buy pickled herring, gherkins, cloudberry jam, crisp bread, cheese and a few other things to boost the authenticity level of our home-cooked meal. While we were there, Himself and I ate dinner in the restaurant. The Burbank Ikea is probably best known from those guerrilla movies that keep popping up on You Tube, so I wanted to be as discreet as possible about taking pix, just in case they thought we were some of Those People, and asked us to leave. (What would that say about you, being kicked out of Ikea, I wonder?)
Busted, heh heh! These are the very same meatballs, mashed potatoes, gravy and lingonberries you'll find in the photo on the Wikipedia page on Swedish cuisine! And all are available in the food market at Ikea, as well as in their cafeteria.

Yeah, Swedish meatballs are pretty clichéd, but you know what? This plate of food was quite satisfying. And I appreciate discovering that I actually like Swedish meatballs. I'd been under the impression that I didn't, because I'd been grossed out over the years by too many of those nasty things coated with a sickly sweet goo made of grape jelly or Odin-knows-what. Swedish meatballs are basically just smallish beef meatballs that are plainly seasoned and served with gravy. That's all there is to it. The potatoes contained bits of peel, which is always a good thing. The lingonberry jam reminded me a bit of cranberry jam, but it was sweeter and not quite so astringent. It was good, but I think I'll stick with my cranberries.

Anyway, back to the home cooking: Himself and I decided to put together a small smörgåsbord for ourselves:
"Sun's Eye": Himself said that if he didn't like this, he was going to rename it "Sauron's Eye." Fortunately, he liked it!

 Okay, so this is one of the coolest looking things I've ever made: Solöga, "Sun's Eye." As the name suggests, you create an "eye" on a plate, one per person. There are no precise measurements--just use as much as you want. Himself and I shared this one, along with several other dishes in our mini-smörgåsbord.

To construct it, chop anchovy fillets and arrange them in a round in the middle of a plate. In concentric circles, build out rings of chopped onion (I rinsed the onion well before plating to remove its harsh edge), finely chopped fresh parsley, finely chopped pickled red beet and tiny cubes of boiled potato (I used waxy potatoes, which hold their shape better when cubed). Place a raw egg yolk (a very fresh one, please) in the center, atop the anchovies. Chill the dish before serving. (Here's the disclaimer: Don't serve raw egg to the very young, the very old, the pregnant or the immune system-compromised. If you're unsure whether you should trust eating raw eggs, look for those that have been irradiated.) I added a grinding of black pepper but no salt--the anchovies provided enough for the entire dish. This combination may seem pretty weird, but the dish was really, seriously good! We all but licked the plate clean and agreed that we'll definitely be having this again. Next time I want to trek to the fish market in downtown LA to get fresh anchovies. I'm sure they'll make my Solöga even more authentic.
Alongside the Solöga we had a salad of pickled red beets, apples and gherkins with some sour cream and grated horseradish root mixed in. When the meal is heavy on seafood, it's nice to have tart foods to mitigate the fishiness.
Räksallad, along with pickled herring, cheese, rye bread & knäckebröd
The Räksallad or "shrimp salad" is actually a dish of cooked shrimp served cold with a dip that's heavy on sour cream, fresh dill and lemon juice. Once again, the tart helps rein in any excessive seafoodiness. Hm, is that a word?
A great snack: knäckebröd with cloudberry jam and an aquavit-laced cheese
Cloudberries look rather like large golden-orange raspberries, and they have incredibly large seeds. Still, they make a good jam and are worth all the tooth-picking that ensues. Morfars Brännvinsost is an aquavit-laced, semi-firm, aged cow's milk cheese. I couldn't actually taste the aquavit, but its light astringency was a good match for the sweet jam, and I appreciate the slight crunch of grana in it that you typically only find in much harder aged cheeses like Parmigiano reggiano and pecorino. 

Knäckebröd, or crisp bread, was devised some 500 years ago as a way to preserve bread. When you live in a place with weather as inclement as it is in Scandinavia, you learn a thing or two about creating indestructible food--that's what all the pickled fish is about. Anyway, it is made of whole grains and does a fine job of, um, keeping the plumbing clean. And that's enough about that.

By the way, I learned that the smörgåsbord was originally a side table of appetizers. At some point it moved to the fore and became the meal itself. Smörgåsbord means "sandwich table" and the "gåsbord" part means "goose butter," so I guess we know what those first sandwiches were made of! (Incidentally, while the word "smörgåsbord" is Swedish, the concept of the long table filled with a variety of foods is by no means unique to that country. You'll find similar spreads around the world.)
Berolina is a Swedish bakery in Glendale that produces goodies from the homeland, along with an array of European breads and pastries. I popped in to sample a semla, a lightly sweet bread that reminds me in texture of brioche. You carve out the middle (it's used to garnish the one in this photo), fill it with marzipan and top it with a lightly sweet crème chantilly. The marzipan has plenty of sugar, making the less sweet bread and crème a good foil for the richness inside.

Speaking of marzipan, the Swedish seem to have a passion for it, becaue it pops up in a lot of desserts, like the Princess Cake.
Princess Cake
Princess Cake, as with the semla, consists of lightly sweet cake and crème chantilly, but this time, with the marzipan coating the outside. It's a good thing the marzipan is the only sweet element--any more sugar and these desserts would be too sweet. Some Princess Cake also contains crème patissiere. I'm sure that variety seriously pushes the boundaries of what a person could and should eat!

So maybe this wasn't a full meal in an authentically Swedish restaurant, but I think we got a pretty good idea of what the cuisine is like. Of course, if I ever get a chance to visit Sweden I'll certainly avail myself of everything there is to try, especially that aquavit...

Friday, March 12, 2010

At the Halfway Mark: Looking Backward and Looking Forward

I posted Week #26 a couple of days ago, putting me squarely at the halfway mark in my "52 Cuisines in 52 Weeks" blogging project.

Am I weary yet of this goal I've set for myself? Nope! Am I running out of cuisines? Not by a long shot! Do I crave a good ol' American hamburger? Not really, but I did enjoy an Umami burger this week, so I've not completely forsaken the food of my native land.

But at the halfway point I'm beginning to think I should do more cooking in this exercise of eating my way around the globe without leaving Los Angeles County. Perhaps I can share a recipe or two along the way. So the second half of this blog project will feature a combination of cooking out, bringing in the prepared foods of (and perhaps from) those countries and dining in their restaurants. I may not be able to manage this every week, but for the second half of this project, I'm certainly going to try for a better balance of sampling food from other countries that is cooked by those for whom it is everyday fare and giving it a go myself.

In a day or two I'll begin with a peek into Scandinavian cuisine, and I'll be making a curious but photogenic dish called Solöga, "Sun's Eye."

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Week #26 Taiwanese

The cuisine of Taiwan borrows heavily from southern China and also from Japan, thanks to 50 years of occupation early last century. I'm still trying to figure out the differences, but at this point I don't see a lot. Still, I'm glad for the opportunity to feast on dumplings, which are incredibly popular in Taiwan.

Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Arcadia is a veritable palace of dumplings (they have locations in Taiwan, too, but for now a drive into the next valley will have to do). We knew it had to be a good choice as soon as we walked up--the place was buzzing and full, with people waiting both inside and out. When we left it was still busy. To our surprise, some friends popped in and were seated at the  table next to ours. "We're on the way to Palm Springs, but we just had to stop off for some dumplings!" they said. Instant party!
The restaurant has windows into the kitchen, so you can keep an eye on the progress of all the dough that's being made fresh by a battery of nimble fingered dumpling wranglers (say that three times real fast!). I had to shoot this photo through a covered glass, so the quality's not great. But you can see the guy in the foreground to the left rolling out lengths of dough and pinching it into pieces that his compadres behind him will roll out, fill with all sorts of meats and vegetables and crimp into the appropriate shapes. Everything is made by hand here, every precise fold on every delicate dumpling.

We went with our friends Andy and Mai, who are regulars here, and we let them navigate the menu for us.
 We started with xiaolongbao or "soup dumplings," juicy dumplings filled with pork and crab and steamed. The operative word here is "juicy," because when you chomp down on them, they squirt broth into your mouth...and onto your shirt if you're not careful! If they've just arrived at the table it's best to nip a tiny hole in the dumpling and carefully slurp out the soup, so you don't burn yourself. But don't wait too long--when these delicate dumplings cool, they tend to stick to the parchment paper beneath them and can tear when you try to pick them up. And you don't want to lose a drop of that yummy broth.
 These steamed half-moon dumplings are filled with well-seasoned chicken--flavorful with onion and ginger, but not hot. Each dumpling has a different shape, so if you're a regular here, you can look at a steamer basket of dumplings and know instantly what's inside them.
These steamed shrimp and pork shiaomai look like tiny volcanoes about to blow shrimp out the top! They're both tasty and fun, and the shape makes them easy to pick up, which is handy if you're a klutz with your chopsticks.
Does this dumpling look more like a large mushroom or a tiny chef's toque for Remy, the rat in Ratatouille? 
The shrimp and pork wontons with spicy sauce were especially good. We ended up dunking the dumplings into the sauce as well. (The menu read "wanton with spicy sauce," but I'm not going to debate its morality!) Like the shiaomai, the pork and crab dumplings and a few other dishes on the menu, the wontons combined meat with seafood, something I'm finding quite often in Asian meals that doesn't seem to show up on Western menus.

Okay, so it's a dumpling house, but we were seduced by the homemade noodles as well...
Beef noodle soup is a popular fast food in Taiwan, and it made a great add-on to our dumpling feast. This bowl of noodles contains spicy roast beef and bok choy in a super-rich broth. In spite of its popularity, beef isn't consumed with much frequency in Taiwan, because the family oxen are valued for the chores they perform. It would be akin to eating your pickup truck, I guess.
  Mmm, just saying "pork mincemeat sauce" makes me drool. This mixture included tiny cubes of firm tofu, which gave the sauce varied texture, while the edamame provided a fresh touch.
Just because it's not a green bean house that doesn't mean the dumpling house skimped on the sides. These green beans sautéed with garlic were seasoned to perfection. In fact, they made me lose sight of the dumplings for a few minutes.
Porkaboo!  These pretty pillows are buns filled with pork meatballs and then steamed. Every fold of every dumpling and bun was perfection--a work of art.
Here's my lovely spread. The tiny dish between the soup bowl and teacup is filled with black vinegar and slivers of fresh ginger. Dipping the dumplings into it helps cut the richness and give them a little extra zing. Some people opt for soy sauce instead, but black vinegar provides a lot of flavor without the added sodium. Black vinegar isn't just about the sour--it's a full-flavored sauce all on its own, a grain-based vinegar that is aged similarly to balsamic. And you can always add a little soy and hot sauce to create your own custom blend.

There were also sweet dumplings for dessert, but by this point we were ready to roll out the door like beach balls. Maybe next time we'll get one less order of savory dumplings and save room for the sweet. And then maybe not. Once you get started it's so easy to say, "Just one more...oh, and that looks good, too..."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Week #25 Rustic French

A lot of people think of French food as oh-so posh and la-di-da. Anyone who's dined at a high end French restaurant would be justified in making that assessment, what with the classic plating, pretty garnishes and all the other niceties of haute experience. But then there's rustic French, which is more reflective of the necessity of using everything available and letting nothing go to waste, a legacy of hard times throughout the centuries. French cooks have done such an exemplary job of taking their resources and producing something good, that you're convinced it must be fancy. Americans are wealthy enough (relatively speaking) to chuck out the bones, organs and other odd bits they've grown unaccustomed to eating--or that they connect with lean times. But these are the parts that make some of the best, most satisfying food, and French cooks are masters at utilizing it all.

This is what I kept thinking about as we enjoyed our rustic French dinner recently. I noted throughout the evening that our meal looked like a study of food preservation methods. Since it was late wintertime, this meal reflected what we'd be eating when we're relying on our reserves of food and awaiting the return of springtime and a new growing season.

We had the good fortune to dine with our friends, Bert and Noel, who have spent a considerable amount of time in France for more years than they likely want to admit. Bert knows his way around France--and French cuisine--like he knows his way around his own house, so we went to Cafe des Artistes in Hollywood with our own personal authenticity meter, and we let him order. It was a nibbly night, meaning we enjoyed a succession of appetizers and dishes to share around the table. I'd eat every meal this way if my dinner partners were always amenable. It's a good way to try a lot of dishes, and it's more fun to share and discuss.
The house paté and house rillettes were served with onion marmalade and cornichons and lots of toasted baguette slices. Marmalade is a tasty way to preserve onions when you have a bumper crop. Cornichons, of course, are tiny pickled cucumbers. Rillettes and paté represent similar methods of preserving meat for future use, paté by collecting, grinding and seasoning meats, then pressing the mixture into a mold and cooking it.
Rillettes is meat cooked slowly in its own fat, then pulverized with some of that fat and seasoned to form a rich spread. It keeps well when you spoon it into ramekins and cover it with a thin layer of fat, which seals out the air. The cornichons and marmalade added the sweet and sour notes that kept these fat-happy meats from being too rich.
 This Alsatian tart flambée was made with farm cheese, bacon and onion. Of course, bacon and cheese represent ways of preserving pork and milk for later consumption. My only problem with this tart was that as a Tennessee farm girl, naturally I assume all bacon will be smoked. The French just don't do it this way. Still, it was really good, but if I ever make this tart, the bacon I use will be smoked!
No, the French don't call it French onion soup! Soupe a l'oignon gratinée is good way to utilize a surplus of onions once you've made enough marmalade. When you slowly, slowly, slowly cook down those onions, you discover how much water there is in them, and when it's all cooked away, you're left with a little bit of rich, sweet yummy onion confiture. Simmer this with some beef stock, made with those bones you didn't throw away. Ladle it over some stale bread that you didn't throw away just because it was stale (it's good for making croutons, too, by the way), grate some cheese over it (gruyere for authenticity, emmental if you'd rather) and hit it with the heat. Et voila! You have one of the best, most nourishing and satisfying bowls of soup ever.
Our concession to France's north African influence was an appetizer of grilled merguez sausages, made of lamb. We dunked them into harrisa, which added a zingy little accent to our French meal. Maybe it's not as ubiquitous as Indian food is in England, but still such dishes are growing in popularity around France.
You can't get any more hearty-peasant than cassoulet--duck confit in a pot of beans and veggies with browned crumbs on top. Confit is a method of preserving meat, especially pork, duck and goose, by cooking and storing its own fat--similar to rillettes, except that those pieces of confit are kept whole. This dish and these meat preservation methods originated in the southwest of France. I'm not proud of it, but hey, I snatched that duck leg!
When there's good cheese to be had, for me it trumps dessert every time. Goat cheese, bleu and morbier with dried fruits and nuts were the perfect finish to our meal. France boasts several hundred cheeses, so we have our work cut out for us. What a happy chore that would be...

With a meal is this satisfying, accompanied by a generous flow of Cote du Rhone, why would you need fancy presentation and such? I'll take rustic cuisine over haute any day!