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Bistro at home

The continuation of an exploration of some of my cookbooks, featuring Laura Washburn's Bistro.

I must admit I started out with a somewhat prejudiced view of French cuisine. Growing up, I was only really exposed to the stereotypical view of haute cuisine – I’m sure some of you will recall Donna Martin spitting out calves brains on Beverly Hills, 90210.

Luckily for me, somewhere along the way I realized that I should not learn my culinary lessons from Aaron Spelling, and I ventured out into the wonderful world of cooking — mainly through my mother’s cookbooks. I was 12, and did not have many opportunities for gastronomic safaris.

It was through these books that I began not only to learn names like Auguste Escoffier and Antoine Carême, but also about mother sauces, demi glace and, my greatest discovery, French home and country cooking. It was this food of the hearth, dishes like boeuf bourguignon and terrines, I found most inspiring; featuring deceptively simple flavours and complex results.

This fixation continued, bringing about my obession with a good baguette, and my frequent patronage of bistros and brasseries. Give me a good steak frites, and I’m set; a long-simmered shank with a robust reduction, and I do not know how to be closer to heaven.

I was in one of these moods when I came across the book Bistro, by Laura Washburn. Hungry and waiting for S in a bookstore (he should know better than to keep me waiting in a place with cookbooks nearby), I was idly leafing through their selection when my eyes fell upon a mouth-watering goat’s cheese tart pictured on the back of a book. Turning it over, I was greeted with a bowl of tempting French onion soup, perfectly presented with a cap of blistered gruyère. The book came home with me that night, and very rarely is far from at hand.

Washburn recalls holidays in France from her childhood, with a nostalgic patina of romance and discovery. The book features both classic recipes, from the ideal crème caramel to the venerable cassoulet, and personal creations like a cumin-scented chick pea salad.

She encourages substutions when necessary, but never loses sight of traditional preparations. It is this respect for the culinary history, while not putting limits on your experience of the food, which spoke to me of her affection for these flavours; she evidently wants to share these tastes and stories.

Le grand aïoli
From Bistro, by Laura Washburn.

Salt cod and snails are traditional ingredients in this Provençal dish, but salmon and shrimp are easier to come by for most people. Be sure to use very good oil; despite great quantities of garlic, the flavour base of the aiöli comes from the oil, so it is worth investing in something special. Serve for a crowd, with everything freshly cooked and warmish, or at room temperature. Wash it all down with a chilled white or rosé from Provence.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 salmon steaks
8 oz. unpeeled shrimp tails
10 oz. small new potatoes
12 oz. asparagus tips
8 oz. small green beans
1 fresh bay leaf
6 baby carrots, sliced lengthwise
1 cauliflower, broken into florets
1 broccoli, broken into florets
8 oz. baby zucchini, halved lengthwise
6 eggs
6 oz. cherry tomatoes
4 cooked beets
Coarse sea salt

2 egg yolks
About 1 2/3 cups best-quality extra virgin olive oil
6 large garlic cloves
Fine sea salt

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large non-stick skillet, add the salmon, and cook for about 3 minutes on each side, or until just cooked through. Season with salt and set aside. Add another 1 tablespoon of the oil to the pan. When hot, add the shrimp and cook until pink and firm, 3-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will be tough. Season and set aside.

Put the potatoes in a saucepan with cold water to cover and bring to a boil. When the water boils, add slat and cook until tender, 15-20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, cook the asparagus tips and beans in boiling salted water until just tender, about 3 minutes.

Bring a saucepan of water to a boil with the bay leaf. When it boils, add the carrots and cook until al dente, 3-4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Return the water to a boil, add the cauliflower florets, and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Return the water to a boil, add the broccoli, and cook until just tender, 3-4 minutes.

Rub the zucchini all over with the remaining oil. Heat a ridged stovetop grill pan. When hot, add the zucchini pieces and cook, about 4 minutes per side. Alternatively, cook the same way in a non-stick skillet. Remove and season.

Put the eggs in a saucepan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for 6 minutes from boiling point. Drain, cool under running water, then peel and slice.

To make the aiöli, put the egg yolks in a small, deep bowl. Beat well, and then gradually beat in the oil, adding it bit by bit and beating vigorously, until the mixture is as thick as mayonnaise. Stir in the garlic and season to taste.

Arrange all the vegetables and fish on a single platter, or on several platters. Serve, passing the aiöli separately.

Serves 6

• While I love this dish in its full-blown glory on the weekends, for the weeknight it is not always the most sensible. For the photograph above, I prepared my fallback version; potatoes, salmon, asparagus and beans, all oven-roasted and served with the aioli.
• For those adverse to using raw egg yolks, there are pasteurized egg products on the market which can be substituted. Check the packaging for how much to use to replace each yolk, as producers may vary.

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