Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bienvenue en Alsace

Keeping the northern table interesting through the winter can be a matter of looking at familiar ingredients in different ways, or of looking at different places on the globe. Looking between the 45th and 50th parallels and traveling east across the Atlantic, we find ourselves in...France! Lucky us. Of the regional cuisines we can choose from, we've got Bretonne , Normande, Auvergnate, Tourangelle, Savoyarde, and today's stop, where we'll remain for the next couple of posts, Alsace, in the northeast corner of La Belle France.

The beauty of this approach is not only that we get to try delicious Alsatian "pizza" topped with crème fraîche , onions, and bacon, and succulent simmered sauerkraut served with savory charcuterie; it also gives us a chance to learn about working in imaginative ways with the limited winter larder. The cuisines of these regions are a great deal older and more sophisticated (for all that they might now be labeled "peasant food") than Jell-O salad and hot dish. There's a wealth of knowledge here about making the most of what we've preserved or cellared from last year's harvest.

With its blend of German heartiness and French refinement, Alsatian cooking provides a great template for cooks in the upper midwest, or other northern climes.

We were in Strasbourg a couple of years ago, and picked up a cookbook called La Cuisine Alsacienne Traditionelle. It didn't seem like such a find at the time, a bit "Better-Homes-and-Gardenish," but the more I look into it, the more I like it. This recipe for tarte flambée is a fairly literal translation of the recipe from that book.

Tarte Flambée (Flammekuche)serves 3 to 4

1 cup warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups (approx.) unbleached all-purpose flour
optional-- 1/4 cup whole wheat flour as part of the 3 cups
1 ounce (2Tbsp) softened unsalted butter

Pour the warm water into a large mixing bowl, and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand five minutes. Add the salt and half the flour, mix. Add the butter in small pieces, mix. Continue adding flour a bit at a time until the dough is too stiff to mix with a spoon. Turn the dough out onto a floured
counter and knead, adding flour as required to keep the dough from sticking, for one minute. Even if the dough isn't perfectly smooth, set it aside, dusted with flour, for 10 or 15 minutes.

Knead the dough again for just a couple of minutes. After the dough has rested it shouldn't take much kneading to achieve a smooth, elastic dough. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature one to two hours; or, place it in the fridge for a longer, slower rise, taking it out an hour or two before you want to bake the tarte.

For the topping:

3 medium onions, chopped
2 tsp butter
2 tsp grapeseed or canola oil
freshly grated nutmeg
4 ounces best quality slab bacon
1 cup crème fraîche, or 3/4 cream mixed with 1/4 cup sour cream
1 egg
salt and pepper

Sauté the chopped onions in the butter and oil for a few minutes, until they are soft but not browned.

Slice the bacon into 1/4-inch slices, and then cut the slices into 1/4-inch little sticks, or "lardons."

Mix the crème fraîche with the egg and a good pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and a few scrapings of nutmeg.

Preheat your oven to 500 F. Prepare the dough: This amount of dough will make three or four tartes--I originally made two larger tartes, but smaller ones would be better. Keep in mind the size of your oven and/or baking stone--you may only be able to bake one or two tartes at a time. For four tarts, divide the dough in four, then stretch and/or roll the dough into roughly 8-by-10-inch rectangles. If you're using a baking stone, place the dough on cornmeal-dusted peels. If you don't have a stone, place the dough on cornmeal-dusted baking sheets.

Spread the cream mixture on the rectangles of dough. Spread the sautéed onions on top of that, and sprinkle the bacon lardons evenly over the top.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the crust is well browned and the cream bubbling. Serve with a salad, like
carrotes rapées , and plenty of cold Alsatian wine, such as riesling or pinot blanc, or the Alsatian blend known as "gentil."

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw


LC said...

Just takes three words to know I'm in the right place: quality slab bacon. Good spot for drinking wine too!

Trout Caviar said...

Lang, has it happened to you, hearing drop from the mouths of people who seem otherwise intelligent about food and wine the astonishing phrase, "...but I don't like white wine..."? They must have been traumatized by some hot, oaky CA chardonnay, or a clumsily sweet sauvignon blanc.

They can't have tried those beautifully crisp and fragrant wines from Alsace, or the glories from the Loire--or from Oregon or Washington, for that matter!

Bottoms up~ Brett