Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sun-Kissed Cuisine Niçoise

I knew when I saw the cover and title of this new, beautifully photographed cookbook, Cuisine Niçoise ($40, Gibbs Smith), I would fall in love. One of my favorite places in the world is Nice and the Côte d'Azur. It's been ages since I was last there and this book took me back, with its recipes for socca--a savory chickpea pancake--and Chilled Mussels with Tarragon-Shallot Mayonnaise and Vegetable Pistou Soup.

Author Hillary Davis has lived in the area for more than a decade, perfecting recipes she's learned from her village neighbors. She is also a superb storyteller and her tales brought back to me my own side trips to Menton, by the Italian border, where the lemon is celebrated annually in one of the weirdest, most wonderful festivals you'd want to see (picture Disney characters the size of parade floats all constructed from lemons). To the Matisse Museum, where you step past ancient Roman ruins to get into the museum and nearby men are gathered to play boules. Or driving the Grande Corniche, passing over Monaco, just like Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief--and, sadly, where her car crashed decades later when she was Princess Grace.

The food of the south of France is magical and so friendly to San Diego, where we enjoy a Mediterranean-like climate. So, the many recipes you'll find here will feel just familiar enough--but with an ineffable charm and magic that sets it apart from SoCal.

The markets in Nice are some of the most colorful I've ever seen. Peppers compete with squash blossoms and citrus, olives and cheese--and hordes of flowers. Some ingredients are unusual and Davis, too, had to educate herself. She helps readers out with a chapter on ingredients--some are obvious and favorites, like artichokes and fennel, but others we need a bit of a primer on, too, even if they seem familiar. Anchovies aren't the nasty bits in tins we find on the supermarket shelves; they're salt-cured or marinated in olive oil. Chickpea flour is essential for socca and for the Pistachio Parmesan Chickpea Fries I've already gathered ingredients to make. Canned tuna? We scoff in the States, but canned tuna in olive oil is a Mediterranean staple and the best quality, from Sicily, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, are sublime.

So far, I've tried a couple of the recipes and was very happy with both.

You may smirk that I started with Eggplant Caviar. You've probably made it a zillion times. I know I have. But I haven't made one before that calls for making slits in the eggplant and inserting slivers of garlic before roasting. The garlic melts into the eggplant, adding an entirely new dimension to the flavor. Add more fresh minced garlic, basil, marjoram leaves, sea salt, and black pepper and you have a new twist on an old favorite.

And, for an easy meal for Oscar night, I turned to her One-Pan Chicken Dinner. Made with lemon, rosemary, and a variety of root vegetables--most notably whole heads of garlic--it's a great party dish and perfect comfort food for a chilly evening.

One-Pan Chicken Dinner
From Cuisine Niçoise by Hillary Davis
(printable recipe)

Serves 4

1 (5-pound chicken)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more
4 potatoes, quartered
4 onions, quartered
8 medium carrots, whole
2 lemons, sliced then halved
4 sprigs rosemary, leaves only, chopped
4 whole bulbs of garlic

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bruch olive oil over the bottom of a large roasting pan.

Place the chicken in the middle of the pan, breast side up. Generously salt and pepper the cavity, oil the skin, and then sprinkle it with salt. Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven and add the potatoes, onions, carrots, lemons, and rosemary.

Slice the tops off the garlic bulbs, rub with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and add to the roasting pan.

Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and return the baking dish to the oven for another 30 minutes. Test the chicken with an instant-read thermometer. If it hasn't reached 165 degrees F., continue cooking until it does, testing again after 15 minutes. The total cooking time should be between 1 and 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the roasting pan, leave the vegetables intact, and allow everything to rest for 10 minutes.

I like to bring the roasting pan to the table or a side table and let people serve themselves. Toss the vegetables in the pan so they are coated with the lemony rosemary oil at the bottom. Give each person a whole bulb of roasted garlic.

Note: Roast two or three chickens at once and you'll have an easy dinner party for a crowd.

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