Sunday, 5 May 2013

Provençal-Inspired Cuisine à la The Seasoned Farmhouse


As I consider the importance of place and space on the diversity and culinary variation of regional French cuisine--in a word, terroir--I often turn to Provence as the first example of rustic, countryside cooking, where dishes are produce-heavy and light, pairing nicely with the sunshine and generally favourable, breezy weather. Provençal cooking as I've experienced it to date is at one end of France's wide gastronomic spectrum. Geography has a lot to do with it of course, including the culinary influences of its neighbours. Provence and southeastern France border northwestern Italy, and are particularly defined by ingredients and cultures of the Mediterranean; equally so, they are influenced by the spices and techniques of North and West Africa. This disposition for olive oil and chickpeas over the arguable prevalence for pork and cow-based dairy products were particularly well highlighted in a cooking demo I attended this past Friday with Marlaine at The Seasoned Farmhouse. Recently opened in Clintonville (the demo we attended was just the third to be held in the new space), this set of programming was created by chef Tricia Wheeler, graduate of the French Culinary Institute of New York and founder of Edible Columbus. And joining her was Shawnie Kelley Foy, author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go and owner of Wanderlust Tours. On Friday's menu: Provençal Chickpea Salad, Provençal Summer Herb Bread, and Provençal Herb Pasta. And paired with each dish was a different wine from the Côtes du Rhône appellation.

To begin our gastronomic experience, Tricia and Shawnie presented us with a glass of Belleruche blanc which began with a bright tone and cascaded into a crisp finish, rolling off the tongue and reflective of the beautiful Friday evening before us.

Paired with the white wine was an amuse bouche of foie gras from Shawnie's most recent visit to France, served with a cherry cognac jam on a toast point. Warm, smooth and velvety, the savoury foie gras paired wonderfully with the sweetness of the jam and the contrasting texture of the bread.

Following a brief presentation on Shawnie and Tricia's professional backgrounds, as well as a general overview of Provence, Shawnie added to a large pot a parboiled batch of chickpeas that had soaked overnight, while Tricia got into a large pot a mirepoix of a clove-studded onion, diced carrot, and a bouquet garni of thyme, rosemary and bay leaf.

With the chickpeas cooking with the additional ingredients, Tricia got to work on Patricia Wells's recipe (from The Provence Cookbook) for the summer herb bread, which Shawnie adapted to local ingredients. Also known as a "cake," this quick bread calls for yogurt and French-style mustard (this version was made with a mustard from Wooster) to be mixed into a combination of flour, baking powder, sea salt, lightly beaten eggs. To finish this off, freshly grated Gruyère cheese (here, a Gruyère-style cheese from Wisconsin) was folded in and then transferred to a loaf pan to bake.

By this point, the chickpeas had finished cooking and a few loaves that had been baking from the start where ready to come out of the oven. Both were served together with their own set of accompaniments. The chickpeas had flat leaf parsley, shallots, garlic, as well as olive oil and vinegar, and a tomato jam made with tomatoes, thyme, shallot, garlic and wine, while the bread was served with an array of jams, as pictured above. The chickpeas were cooked perfectly, with a nice bite to them, yet they were rather neutral, thus allowing the accompaniments to impart their flavour to the dish. The bread had a subtly delicate and crisp exterior which gave way to the light and airy interior, the texture of which was very reminiscent of quiche. With this go-around, I tried the bread with the tomato jam (picking up some sweetness and a little heat from the garlic) and the pear jam (balanced sweetness to match the savoury bread). At the end of the demo, I also tried the fig and raisin jam with some leftover bread.

Among the fundamental ingredients of Provençal cooking, fresh produce including garlic and herbs, and proteins of seafood and lamb, would join the ranks of olives. Nodding to this important Mediterranean ingredients, a mix of olives was served, including the prized olives of Nyons. For those who know my palate, I'm not the biggest olive fan (though, like Jenn wrote in this article, I've gotten better), but these olives (which grow as far north as olives will grow) weren't incredibly salty and had a slight sweetness to them.

Paired with this second course was a chilled-then-brought-to-room-temp rosé by La Vieille Ferme. Warm, with a full mouth feel, I could taste the tannins of the wine, almost as if I was getting to the nuances of actual grape skins. While the white wine situated me in springtime, the rosé pushed me along toward a summer evening stroll overlooking the vineyards.

Speaking of pushing along, we headed into our third course (timed very well and indeed throughout the entire experience, by the way). After sharing her pasta recipe, Shawnie rolled out chilled pasta dough to a level 6 thickness (practically translucent) in order to create "fossil pasta," a play on Italy's fazzoletti.

To create the fossil-like imagery suggested by her recipe, Shawnie sandwiched a mix of herbs and edible flowers between the pasta sheets, rolling out the dough until the combined sheet could get through the level 6 setting. Tricia then took each batch and cooked them, while also working on a simple reduction of extra virgin olive oil, shallot, garlic and white wine to serve as the sauce.

Unlike typical pasta dishes where the sauce is usually the star and the pasta is present as a vehicle for the sauce (think of the different shapes and their role in collecting sauce, e.g., gnocchi and romesco), the star of Provençal pasta is the pasta itself.

Here, the pasta spoke to the herbaceous theme of the evening, further complemented by its floral tones and flavoured by freshly grated Parmesan for an added touch of salt. Tender asparagus, it should be noted, was also served with the pasta and added some texture to the otherwise smooth dish.

The final wine of the evening was the 80-20 (Grenache-Syrah) Belleruche rouge, a warmer, rich wine that ended with a spicy finish and equally paired well with the chocolate that was shared to round out the evening. To check out upcoming classes and events at The Seasoned Farmhouse, click here. And for even more photos from this wonderful evening of food and culture sharing, click here.

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