Provence. The mere sound of the word brings rise to so many dreams of Mediterranean bright light, dramatic landscapes and picturesque villages taken from all the books and films I grew up on (Jean de floret, Manon du source, la gloire de mon pére, to name few) and artists like van Gouge, Gogain, Matisse and Picasso who managed to capture the magic of this pearl of beauty. And, not to mention the reputation of the Provençal food that echoes in so many French restaurants around the world. It was time to meet the real thing, the scenery from movies and paintings was about to come alive.
So, off I went to Provence with high expectations and ideals of pampering my pallet with mouth watering Mediterranean flavors, the fragrances of fresh herbs and dishes bursting with flavor.
Unfortunately, the truth was that reality hit me in the face, or rather in my mouth. My culinary hopes and dreams were shattered and crumbled as I experienced the local restaurant scene. True, we were away from big cities, where most likely the better restaurants are located and stayed in the rural areas of this beautiful part of the country, but I had still fantasized about a country ‘auberge’ here and there, nestled in a narrow alley of a tiny little village that will serve me a steaming bowl of ‘soup au pistou’ or a plate of fragrant ratatouille, what more can a girl ask for? To my disappointment, I did not find any semblance of traditional, local food when I looked at those menus hanging on every restaurant or bistro window. All that stared back at me was a boring list of what tourists are expected to like; Pizzas and pastas as the only vegetarian option, but almost solely meat and fish and vegetables were nowhere to be seen…
Bottom line, rural Provence for me (and at least in the areas where we stayed) is a gorgeous place with stunning landscapes and picturesque nature, but if you want to eat well and enjoy the real taste of the beautiful local produce you’d better roll up your sleeves, visit the local markets and cook it yourself. Hence, that is exactly what I did and I’m so happy to share with you some of my favorite takes on the local provencal food that I created myself.
Soup au Pistou
This is a light and fragrant vegetable soup, made from the typical Mediterranean vegetables like courgette, yellow squash, pepper, tomatoes and fresh herbs. A dollop of pistou added to it brings it to a whole new level. Pistou is the Provençal version to the famous Ligurian pesto. It is based on basil, garlic and olive oil and my version includes a green tomato and chili for an extra punch.
For six servings
For the soup:
3 tablespoons mild olive oil
1 leek, green and white parts thoroughly washed and sliced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 small courgette, diced
1 small summer yellow squash, diced
Half a red bel pepper, in cubes
6 cups vegetable stock (can be made from an organic stock cube)
4 small sprigs of fresh thyme
2 ripe tomato, cut into medium cubes
1 tbs apple cider vinegar, 1 tbs lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
A large handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
For the Pistou:
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 green tomato, in chunks (if you can’t get a green tomato use other)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 chili pepper (optional)
8-10 stalks basil, leaves only, washed and dried
Heat the olive oil in a soup pan, on a medium fire. Add the leek and cook wile mixing for 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add carrots, courgette, squash and pepper. Keep cooking till vegetables are a bit caramelized, about 5-7 minutes.
Add the vegetable stock,thyme and tomatoes. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes till the vegetables are soft. Add the vinegar and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and leave the pan covered for another 10 minutes to let all flavors come together.
When ready to serve, add the parsley and divide into soup bowls, drizzle a little more virgin olive oil. Serve with the pistou on the side for the diners to top their soup.
To make the pistou:
Wile the soup is cooking, place all the ingredients in a small food processor and process to a paste, transfer to a small bowl.
This is sort of a combined pancake and pizza, made from chickpea flour and is therefore naturally gluten free. Traditionally it is scattered with chopped tomatoes and herbs, but toppings can be varied endlessly so use your culinary creativity to come up with your favorite combination.
Makes 3 soccas about 20cm in diameter
1 cup chickpea flour
1 cup+2 tbsp water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, crashed
1/2 tsp fine grain sea or rock salt
The secret here is to make the batter ahead of time so the chickpea flour absorbs the water well so it will hold better together. You can make the batter in the morning so it is waiting for you to prepare it for dinner or, even the night before.
Just whisk together all the ingredients to a smooth batter and keep it, covered, in the fridge till you ready to fry.
Heat some (odourless) coconut oil or mild olive oil in a heavy skillet. Pour a large ladle of batter to cover the surface, tilt the skillet to spread it evenly around. Cook on medium heat till the top side is firm. Use a wide metal spatula to turn the socca over. A word of advise, it might take once or twice to get it right with heat and consistency so maybe you want to double the recipe quantities for the purpose of practicing for the first time.
When you turned your socca and wile it’s cooking on the other side you can place your toppings on it or, you can transfer it when ready (both sides nicely golden browned) to a baking sheet, pour a new batch into the skillet wile your ready socca is topped and placed under the broiler.
And now for toppings, traditionally it is chopped tomatoes, garlic and olive oil but let your creativity loose and go for your favorite combination of vegetables, fresh herbs, cheese, olives and so on.
Ratatouille is a traditional Provençal vegetable stew, which originates from Nice and the must-have ingredients are Mediterranean summer vegetables such as aubergine, courgette, peppers and tomatoes. Since I’m not French and tradition is mere an inspiration for me, I tried many versions of that dish with different combinations of vegetables and it practically became a what-ever-I-have-in-the-fridge with tomato sauce stew. Eventually I got to the conclusion that in order to keep the flavour and personality of every participant, it’s better to cook them in layers so they contribute their aromas to each other but still keep their own unique texture and taste. The result is a symphony of bursting flavours in every spoonful. I also prefer using fresh ripe (cherry) tomatoes rather then drench the whole thing in an overtaking tomato sauce. And one last thing, I like to add a little green touch at the end, in this case fresh garden peas.
We start in a pan over the stove and finish the dish in the oven. This will allow each vegetable the right time to fully cook, as they all have different cooking times.
Make sure to use the best and fresh vegetable as soggy aubergines and over ripe courgettes will end up in a bitter result.
2-3 tbsp mild olive oil
1 large onion
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium aubergine
1 red pepper
200 gr ripe cherry tomatoes (I use the plum variety)
Salt and pepper
1 tsp Provençal herbs
A dash of piment or cayenne pepper, optional
1 cup garden peas, blanched (can be frozen and defrosted)
Some extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Start preparing all the vegetables: cut onion, aubergine, courgette and pepper to same size cube, about 1.5 cm. half the cherry tomatoes. Lay them separately on the side.
Heat the mild olive oil in a heavy wide pan with a lid, on medium heat and add the onion. Sauté for few minutes wile mixing from time to time till the onion is transparent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the aubergine cubes and keep sautéing and mixing for 10-15 minutes till the aubergines are starting to soften. It’s a good idea to cover the pan at this stage so the steam is helping to soften the aubergines. Mix in the courgette cubes and continue cooking for another 10 minute. Season with salt and pepper.
Preheat your oven to 180 Celsius degrees.
Drizzle some virgin olive oil on the bottom of a shallow oven dish and lay the onion-aubergine-courgette mixture, spread evenly. Scatter the pepper cubes and the halved cherry tomatoes evenly. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle the herbs and piment (if using). Drizzle with a little virgin olive oil.
Place the the dish in the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Take the dish out, scatter the peas and return to bake for extra 10 minutes. You want your ratatouille to be bubbling, vegetables all soft and tender and the tomatoes nicely roasted.
And here is another variation (try to remember where have you seen it ;-) ). It is not only a beautiful presentation but a perfect harmony of bursting flavours.
This time slice your vegetable in thin slices (using a mandolin or a very sharp knife). I used aubergine (use the thin long Japanese verity if you can), courgette, yellow squash, tomatoes and red onion, try to get vegetables at the same diameter, it makes it easier to arrange the dish.
Make a nice and rich tomato sauce with plenty of garlic, olive oil and Provençal herbs. Spread the sauce on the bottom of an oven dish. Lay your vegetable slices tightly in circles around (or in lines). Drizzle with some more olive oil and season. Sprinkle with extra Provençal herbs. Cover with aluminium foil and bake in 180 degrees for about an hour. The ratatouille is ready when sizzling, vegetables are totally soft and tender and a bit caramelised at the top. Finish the dish with extra fresh chopped herbs like thyme, oregano or simply parsley.