France Part II, and chicken w/ morels and rice pilaf
ONE OF THE BEST DISHES I COOKED.
Lourmarin is what it promises, a picturesque village in the Luberon region in Provence, and more.
No matter what kind of cynicism you bring along, or distaste for anything that seems to fit too squarely into Martha Stewart magazines, you come here, you see it, and it’s hard not to surrender, even just for a moment, under Lourmarin’s somewhat curated but irresistible, undeniable charm. We arrived at 7 o’clock in a summer evening when this village draped with honeysuckle vines and buzzing bumble bees were casted under a slanted, pale blue light. With just one deep breath of its brisk, floral and light beige linen atmosphere, everything felt just right. May I even remind you that this was after 9 hours of driving from Lyon cutting through the gruesome, annual European migration to the south in the middle of August? If it weren’t for the highlight of us stopping midway at an orchard, and me may-or-may-not having stolen a bright red apple and ran, the day would’ve all seem to be in ruin.
That ain’t pretty. But Lourmarin made it worthwhile.
It seems that more than her cities, the French countryside does that to ya. So helplessly I admit to myself. No matter how many of the exhausted, in-between segments on the road where it looked almost like a glimpse of New Jersey off of Route 139; or the number of times when we were reminded of being an outsider when we couldn’t say huile d’olive or buy cheeses from the farmer’s markets without sounding like an idiot. No matter how tempting it is sometimes, for me (or you, or anyone who’d like to admit) to dislike “the French”, that at the end, in these moments when I am standing within the consuming allure of a beautiful village like this, I can’t deny that it might all just be my concealed envy for their lives here. Their given. Their extraordinary mundane.
Speaking of farmer’s markets.
This village is famed by its farmer’s market held every Friday, which highlights our idiocy to arrive here on a Saturday… But fellow idiots, worry not. Because there are plenty of other open markets held on different days of the week in scattered villages around. For example, Sunday in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a massive open flea market that takes over the entire town, rampant with antiques, fresh produces, Provençal attires, and contributed to the 12 kgs of award-winning saucissons we hauled back in our luggage. There were goat saucissons that made us howl, and cured and aged pork tenderloin that blew my mind, with its unusually soft and fatless character changing my understanding for how diverse is the art that is charcuteries. People tend to ask me, which was the best restaurant that we ate at on this trip? But in my experience, nothing, no star-studded establishments could come close to sitting on a bench overlooking a neon sunset that quiets even the most cynical mind, and slowly harvesting from a picnic on top of an antique board and knives, all collected from the same market in the very same morning.
In that moment, in this confusing navigation through this thing called life, you know you at least got something right.
Leaving Lourmarin was hard. But Marseille awaited, where in a warm but brisk mediterranean afternoon, we arrived.
People, especially the French themselves it seems, tend to have their reservations about Marseille. Gritty, dangerous. Complicated.
Considering that they were a mere 80 minutes apart, was Marseille’s rougher, smudgier and instantly more mixed composite a big contrast to Lourmarin’s polished, beige-y and tourist-friendly facade? Absolutely. Did we also, within the very short two days in Marseille, witnessed some evidence of its allegedly crime riddled streets, seeing a sturdy grown man’s bag getting ripped straight off of his grip and the wrangling and violent chase that ensued? Unfortunately that is also a yes. So sure, Marseille didn’t feel like an intuitively easy place to fall in love with for an outsider, I can see that. But strangely, I didn’t even have to dig deep to find one reason after another to be attracted to this tall dark stranger, to appreciate this city beyond its less welcoming appearance.
For one, Marché de Noailles, where you can find seductively aromatic spice shops, and North African and Arabic influenced boulangeries with their chewy stuffed msemen (Moroccan flatbreads) which instantly set it apart from just another farmer’s market, serving as a reminder, again, that complicated and interesting are always two sides of one coin. Then, if it’s retail-orgasm that you’re looking for, just one short block away from the market – Maison Empereur. What looks as if just a well-stocked kitchen cutlery storefront will open into a full-blown, two-stories warehouse that provides not just fantasies on exceedingly cool cookwares and baking supplies, but a massive, unapologetic orgy of all your wildest wet dreams on fine living. An amazing collection of knives reminds me of some of those at Nella Cutlery, especially the Japanese ones they stock. I dreamt of using some of the knives whilst prepping veg. Call me sad, but the whole place was dreamy. From weaved tote bags with aged leather straps, to an almost unnecessary collections of fine-made brushes that will enable all your insufferable OCD’s. From a museum of hardwares that ranges between vintage French window fittings down to a micro inspection mirror, to a department of children’s attires and bike horns that will elevate you to the most snobbish hipster in your suburban neighborhood.
But especially, especially, if you like knives… bring your antiperspirant for the sake of being polite.
IF IT’S RETAIL-ORGASM YOU’RE LOOKING FOR – MAISON EMPEREUR,
BEYOND COOKWARES, BUT AN ORGY OF ALL YOUR WILDEST WET DREAMS ON FINE LIVING.
Perhaps now is a good time to come clean, about why I planned this trip in the first place.
I had a fetish about driving along the mediterranean coast. Fetish, I say, you know, those footage that
we all I swoon over in romantic comedies or on Travel Channel, where a white-striped Mini Cooper cruising delightfully over a curved road with pine tree-lined slopes on one side, and the chest-opening scene of the mediterranean ocean on the other? The gradations of all spectrums of blues. The transparencies of moving waters. The calanques. Picturesque views that if photographed, would definitely be good for some quality wall art; you know the ones where you can get large-sized photos on wood and fix it up in the bedroom or living room to stare at with longing in your eyes…those kind of views. That was the reason that I came, that I am here.
Ah, the calanques… the fucking calanques…
Why did nobody tell us that to get to the most famous calanque, the pristinely blue and turquoise coves that cut into the mediterranean coast inside the Parc National des Calanques, one would have to hike through and down a terrain of steep, rocky death-trap for more than an hour on foot? Not only it wasn’t a job that any motor-vehicle could get done for us, but a labor under the unforgiving sun that blazed these sizzling rocks for the better part of the summer days.
Was this guy seriously telling me that the French tax-payer didn’t splurge on an express escalator down? Non? Boats? NON?? How about death-by-peddling??? “Pas possible… Non. NON.” Looking down at my stripy sandals and sundresses, the lady inside the canoe rental booth gave me the okay NOT to try. Good. I was worried that she might called my bluff. Sitting at a cliff-side restaurant snacking defeatedly on deliciously fried, tiny tiny smelts, we found ourselves facing with the same decision that stared us in the face in Ölüdeniz Turkey – to go big, or go home.
So I did it.
I pushed Jason to jump off a cliff.
How did it feel to jump off of a three stories-high cliff, then to swim through the crushing waves to climb atop onto what looked like razor-sharp and slippery rocks? Judging from my perspective under the shade with watermelon juice running precariously down my sticky fingers, I’d say if I were you I’d do it.
So I ticked it off as a been-there-done-that on my list, and moved on.
Before the trip, I didn’t have any aspirations for Cannes. Movie stars, red carpets and a blinking red carousel that reads “Costly Tourist Baits Sold Here” were my preconception of this city, where I only picked to stay because it is a merely 30 minutes drive from Nice where we return our car. But I guess the best surprises in life can only happen without expectations.
More than memories, and perhaps for the first time ever throughout our entire traveling history, we made friends in Cannes.
I don’t know if this would come off as a surprise, but it is rare, for us to make friends on a trip. Therefore, on the last day before we left Cannes, the image burnt deeper when we exchanged squeezing hugs, personal emails and phone numbers with our host from Airbnb, whom we grew deeply, deeply fond of during our stay. She pointed her finger firmly towards the ground, “You come back“, said both Marc and Monique in French. Reaffirming, but we knew we wanted to be their friends way back before that. Before on the first day when Marc led us to their front door, and insisted on helping to carry our saucisson-stuffed luggages up the stairs, a gesture that he didn’t need but simply wanted to provide; before he welcomed us in their gorgeous yet outrageously underpriced apartment with the A/C turned on hours prior for our comfort, a generosity that is rare to say the least; even before he took us on a tour in the old town of Cannes where he grew up in, obviously deeply attached to, and told us stories while we were standing next to the building where he was born 60+ years ago, just a few blocks away from the one where his wife was, too. This Italian restaurant used to be a silverware shop, and that bar, a shoe-repair booth…
But we knew we wanted to be their friend within the first few exchanged sentences, when Marc greeted us in our car upon arrival.
“Hi! We’d be interested to know where is a good place to eat in Cannes?”
“Eh Cannes? In zeh city? I don’t eat in Cannes. I drive, outside.”
“Re… really?! Nothing here? Ever?”
“Yes, becausaaah we like really really good foods.”
“Near Cannes? So where was the last restaurant that you drove to?”
“Eh.. one two zero zero kilometers.”
“Eh oui, we like really really good foods.”
Just like that. Can you blame us?
Listen to your friends, especially ones like these. Instead of shedding money on overpriced tourist foods (his words), we spent our energy on exploring markets like Marché Forville and nearby seafood shops where we found fresh sardines and anchovies…..
Oh I’m sorry perhaps I wasn’t being clear.
Fresh sardines and fresh ANCHOVIES!
Do I ever say OMG? Ok maybe I do but my point is, OMG, I could barely contain my excitement. If you ever know me at all you’d know that I’m a sardine-whore but a fresh anchovy-virgin. I’ll take a salt and oil brined anchovies in anything any day but the fresh ones were still mystically on the top of my To-Cook Bucket List. Not anymore, my friend. Meticulously, with my Opinel, I sliced off the head on a precisely slanted angle and opened up its belly. After removing the innards, I then gently pulled at the tip of the spine as the bone slowly separates away from the flesh down to the end near the tail where I carefully cut off with a scissor. Removing the dorsal fin with two assertive cuts, I then severed the anal fin while scraping off as many tiny bones along the bellies without losing its precious meat, before giving it a rinse into a bowl of iced water. If there were any little remnant bones I saw, I pulled them off with my fingernails, otherwise, I dabbed the deboned anchovies dry with clean clothe, and marinated them with lemon juice and sea salt inside the fridge for two hours. Removed them from the liquid, seasoned with sprinkled sea salt, white pepper, minced shallots, sumac from Marseille, and a good glistening of extra virgin olive oil.
Hands down. One of the most memorable dish I ate on this entire trip.
So refreshing that it gave my normally insecure self a boost of boldness to present them as friendship-bait to Marc and Monique who lived next door. And the rest, before we took a flight from Nice back to Paris then straight back home, is more than just another page inside the photo album.
All things, including life, is only beautiful because it ends. I am now, at this very moment, sitting in front of the familiarity of my computer in my Hong Kong apartment, listening to the drizzling rain that is emotionally and physically worlds-apart from the memories that I’m reciting.
Next to my left arm, are tiny, glass marble-sized saucissons from Lyon. Savory, complex, and almost sweet at the same time.
CHICKEN W/ MORELS AND RICE PILAF (WITH A SPIN):
One of the best dishes I’ve cook. I agree. And that’s that.
Seriously, try not to substitute anything, especially sha-jiang powder and shaoxing wine, which are the two ingredients that give this recipe its unique flavorings and depth. If you couldn’t find or afford dried morels (which could be expensive), substitute with other types of dried mushrooms (porcini for example) that may not be as satisfying texturally, but flavor-wise, is just as good.
Then a note on the chicken. There’s no seasoning or technique that is going to compensate the absence of flavor in a factory-raised chicken, you know, Perdue? The well-toned meaty richness, the golden fat, the aroma that almost meanders like the last song from within the soul of a true poultry raised for its flavors and not its double-D breasts, whenever I taste one, is a real high. I’m an extremely cheap person who loves cheap meats, but whenever I can or should spare, I’m willing to spend a little more on a great chicken. Free-running, not too big, with muscular legs and a pair of reasonably sized boobs. It makes all the difference.
I let the chicken slowly come to the perfect doneness in the remnant heat of the oven, so they are just cooked but supple, juicy, with almost a hue of pink inside the bones. Don’t freak out. They’re cooked. Unless the flesh has difficulty separating from the bones, sir, your chicken is cooked. But if you’re a pink meat-phobic, then let them stay in the oven for 30 min instead of 20. Sigh.
- 1 free-range chicken (my chicken is a little over 1 kg)
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 1 1/2 tsp sha-jiang/galanga powder (see note), or ginger powder
- 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
- 6~8 large or 12 small dried morel mushrooms, or other dried mushrooms you have
- 1 cup (235 ml) hot water
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 cloves garlic, smash
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 small shallots, grated
- 3 cloves garlic, grated
- 2 1/2 tbsp flour
- 1/4 cup (60 grams) shaoxing wine, or sherry
- 2 cups (470 grams) chicken stock
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- 1 tsp mushroom powder (see note)
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter (or 2... or 3)
- 3 cups (595 grams) jasmine rice
- Fat from the chicken
- 3 small shallots, minced
- 3~4 fresh bay leaves
- 3 1/4 cups (764 grams) chicken stock
- 3 tbsp garlic aioli
- sea salt and ground white pepper to season
- PREPARE THE CHICKEN AND MOREL: There are usually two large lumps of fat attached inside the cavity of the chicken near the inner thighs. Remove them and reserve. Cut the chicken into four large sections, 2 breasts with drumsticks from the wings, and 2 legs. Cut the tips of all the drumsticks off to expose the bones (just prettier this way). Mix sea salt, sha-jiang powder and ground black pepper together, then rub evenly into the chickens including the fat. Plastic-wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours to marinate. Rinse the dried morels with water to get rid of any sands and dirts. Soak in 1 cup of hot water, flipping occasionally, and set aside until needed.
- COOK RICE PILAF: Rinse the rice with water until it runs clear, set aside. Cut the marinated chicken fat into small pieces (or you can use 3 tbsp of schmaltz). In a large pot, render the fat over medium heat until crispy. Add minced shallots and bay leaves, and cook until soft. Add the rice and cook for 3 min until evenly coasted in oil, then add the chicken stock.
- Close the lid (preferably a glass-lid so you can see what's going on) and turn the heat down to low. Cook for 15~20 min until the stock has slowly come to a simmer, then turn the heat up to medium-low, and cook for another 6~8 min until the stock has been fully absorbed (it may look already absorbed in the beginning but the bottom is still wet). Now turn off heat, with the lid still on, and leave for another 15 min. Give the rice a gentle fluffing, then put the lid back on and leave another 5 min. Stir in the garlic aioli, then keep warm with the lid on.
- COOK CHICKEN W/ MOREL: Preheat the oven on 300 F/150 C. In a cast-iron skillet over high heat, melt the unsalted butter, then place the chickens SKIN-SIDE DOWN in the skillet. Brown the chickens skins as evenly as you can (repositioning/holding them with a tongs), then once they are golden browned and crispy, add the smashed garlic and fresh thymes to infuse the oil. Flip the chickens so they are now skin-side up, and transfer into the oven. TURN OFF THE OVEN now and let the chicken slowly cook for 20 min. Meanwhile, gently squeeze the morels dry and set aside. KEEP THE WATER.
- After 20 min, transfer the chickens to a tray and set aside. Remove the smashed garlics and thyme from the skillet, and return it to medium-high heat. Add the morels and cook until slightly browned on the edges, then remove from the skillet and set aside. Add grated shallots and garlics, and cook until fragrant, then add the flour. Cook for 1 min, then add the shaoxing wine. Whisk the skillet to remove any brown bits on the bottom and to prevent lumps. Once the alcohol has mostly evaporated, add the morels back in, along with chicken stock, mushroom water, bay leaves, mushroom powder, sea salt and ground white pepper. Whisk and let it come to a simmer, then cook until it's reduced in 1/2. Add the heavy cream and let cook until reduced slightly and thickened, then whisk in the Dijon mustard. Return the chickens to the skillet and simmer for 5 min to warm through, then whisk in 1 tbsp of unsalted butter into the sauce (or 2 tbsp if you're feeling upbeat, and 3 tbsp if feeling down-beat). Re-season with sea salt if needed, then garnish with a few sprinkles of fresh thymes.
- Serve immediately with rice pilaf, aioli, and good company.
Sha-jiang powder is a type of ground ginger used widely in Cantonese cooking. I consider it a God-sent spice for chickens. If you can't find it, substitute with ground ginger but it's quite different.
Shaoxing wine is common type of Chinese cooking wine with unique fragrance that pairs very well with mushrooms and chickens. You should be able to find it in any Chinese groceries.
Mushroom powder is just ground dried shitake mushrooms. You can ground them in your spice-grinder and keep in an air-tight container for up to a month.