Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

Joyeux Quatorze Juillet!

Today is Bastille Day in France - although this is the foreign term. In France, their national holiday is called Le Quatorze Juillet or Fête Nationale.

A series of catalysts merged in the summer of 1789. France was facing economic crisis, mainly due to their large contributions to the American Revolutionary War (along with the hope of invading Great Britain after the war, but that's another story). French citizens were being heavily taxed and even the nobility was not having any of it and refused to contribute. The lower classes were starting to go hungry. A National Assembly & National Guard were formed to ensure the monarchy would take notice of what the citizens of France desired in restoring order to the country. However, changes were none too swift. The Hôtel des Invalides was raided and arms were taken. Alas, they were without gunpowder.

Thus came the Bastille. The French knew stockpiles of gunpowder were available. Although the Bastille was scheduled for closing, due to its high cost of maintenance and lack of purpose, it had already become a symbol of tyranny. On July 14th, Several hundred citizens gathered outside and demanded access to gather supplies - and for the French Guard to surrender. After hours of negotiation, the crowd could be quelled no longer. No one knows which side fired first, but a grotesque battle ensued. The French Guard relented and the fortress was liberated. News spread of the Bastille's fall. Citizens took up arms and barricaded the city streets of Paris for fear of retaliation by other troops of French Guards. However, the liberation of the Bastille proved to the monarchy their reign of power was over. The French had won their own Revolution.

The first celebration was the year after on 14 July 1790 in Paris. Fireworks were used to commemorate the occasion, which are still widely enjoyed. Today the French also enjoy parades and peasant foods, along with plenty of pastis and beer.

With both our countries' independence holidays being so close together, Americans also like to join in the celebration with our fellow Revolutioners. Communities all across the country have their own Bastille Day parties. One of the most humorous is in Washington, D.C. - the French Maid Relay Race at L'Enfant. The photos speak for themselves.

I, too, won a battle with this dish - frying food for the first time. I can happily report it went very well. Very few frites were sacrificed. I was once fearful of frying foods since I knew this could be unhealthy. However, this never stopped me from eating foods I knew were fried outside my home. I came to realize if I'm going to eat fried foods, it would be better to do it myself. I would know exactly which oil and what caliber of foods I'd be consuming. I do not have that guarantee elsewhere. Plus it's fun to discover new ways of cooking. I had a great time making these recipes.

I also discovered several new ingredients. I had my favorite specialty foods store order a pound of merguez. They also helped me pick out a sheep's milk cheese called Agour Ossau-Iraty. Finally, I picked up a container of créme fraîche for a dipping sauce. I had never tried any of these ingredients before and was so excited to create my Bastille Day dish.

The smell of cooked merguez was intoxicating. I have never experienced such a mosaic of lingering flavors, while enjoying the delicate taste of a sausage before. The seasonings possess an ending of spiciness without any heat, which would dissolve any taste of the meat. The merguez beautifully paired with the porcini mushrooms as a topping, which left a hint of walnut on my tongue. The Agour was strong both in aroma and taste, bringing more earthy goodness to the dish. The pommes frites rounded out the rustic quality and were delicious. Lastly, the dipping sauce completed the French appeal, allowing the frites to shine, but adding a tangy accompaniment of cream and butter flavors.

Pommes Frites
Printable Recipe

4 large russet potatoes (2 potatoes per person)
32 oz palm oil or peanut oil
kosher salt

Cut both ends off the potato and then cut in half. Cut each piece in half again and then stand up the pieces on the newly cut side.

Slice each piece in half and lay the pieces flat. Finally, cut in half and discard the small outer piece. Place the pieces in a large bowl of cold water while cutting the remaining potatoes.

Drain the water and refill the bowl again and allow the pieces to rest in cold water for 10 min. Drain once more and thoroughly dry each piece.

Use a pan that will allow an oil depth of 2 - 3 inches. Heat the oil to 320*F. In small batches (up to 10 pieces), fry the frites for 4 - 5 min. Do not allow the frites to brown. Remove and place on a plate lined with paper towels. Continue until all the frites have been cooked once. Allow them to rest and reach room temperature. Finish the final frying step just before serving.

Increase the oil temperature to 375*F. Cook the frites for a second time for 2 -3 min, again in small batches. Drain on a plate lined with fresh paper towels. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt as they first come out of the oil.

~Adapted from Cook's Journal and The Recipe Hound.

Porcini Sauce
2 tbsp dried porcini mushrooms
1/3 cup boiling water
2 tsp butter
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1/4 cup shiraz (The Wishing Tree, 2006)
1 1/4 cups chicken broth
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp organic, non-bleached all purpose flour
1 tbsp whole milk
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Pour 1/3 cup boiling water over 2 tbsp dried porcini mushrooms in a small bowl. Cover for 15min to rehydrate.

Finely chop 1/4 cup shallots and set aside. Drain the mushrooms in a colander over a bowl; using cheesecloth, filter the liquid and retain 1/4 cup. Rinse and drain the porcini mushrooms, and finely chop.

Melt butter over medium heat and add shallots, cooking for 3 min. Add the shiraz and cook for 1 min. Next add the porcini mushrooms, reserved mushroom liquid, chicken broth, and thyme; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 min. Combine the flour and milk in a small bowl and slowly add to the sauce, while returning to a boil. Reduce the heat again to medium-low and slowly stir until desired thickness is reached, 20 - 30 min. Add salt and pepper at the end.

~Adapted from Cooking Light.

Open-Faced Merguez Sandwich
1 slice Pain au Levain or sourdough bread
1/3 cup arugula
1 1/2 merguez sausages, sliced lengthwise
3 tbsp porcini sauce
1 tbsp Agour Ossau-Iraty or sheep's milk cheese

Toast the slice of bread and top with arugula. Lay the merguez cut side up and cover with porcini sauce. Finally, add shavings of sheep's milk cheese.

Please forgive my photographs - they do not do the meal any justice. Not only do I lack a proper camera, but after making the Porcini Sauce, my hands were a bit shaky from partaking in the shiraz. I promise I am working to correct this issue - acquiring a camera that is.

~Original recipe by Brie.

Willow Sauce*
3 tbsp créme fraîche
2 tbsp raw milk
2 tsp horseradish
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp freshly minced dill
pinch of kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and serve with pommes frites.

If créme fraîche is unavailable, sour cream can be substituted and the milk can be halved or omitted depending on the desired viscosity.

~Original recipe by Brie.

*The name for this sauce came to me as I was chopping the dill. The herb has always reminded me of a weeping willow tree, and the name implies a delicateness. I thought it would describe the subtle flavors

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