Fresh Food With A French Twist

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Fabulous French Takes On Gardenly Meals

Recently, I’ve been delightedly cooking from a reprint of a classic cookbook called Simple French Food. While not well known to the general public, the author, Richard Olney, was extremely influential among chefs and cooking gurus in his time (mainly the 60s and 70s). It’s well written, chatty, didactic, and lively with ‘tude, and it’s also reflective of the many years Olney spent in a small village in Provence, where he lived from his mid-twenties on.

Like most classic cookbooks, it’s meat-heavy, but vegetables are treated with loving respect (Olney says that broad beans “provide one of the most heavenly of all vegetable purees,” for instance). I’ve tried a bunch of the recipes and my favorites are water-based soups that have the clean, fresh taste of vegetables, not heavy or greasy with stock or broth. I almost always prefer soups that are made this way, because they let the true garden flavors sing.

Fabulous & Fast French Soup

I’m stuck on this simple version of French potato leek soup, which is totally delicious, fast-cooking, simple, and can easily be made vegan to boot. Nearly all potato leek soup recipes are heavy on the butter, milk, and/or cream, but Olney claims that that would very much surprise French cooks whose home style version is nearly dairyless. He does use a bit of butter to finish his soup, but the vegan version below is equally wonderful and mildly addictive. That may be why it’s served nightly in many working class French homes; it’s exceptionally tasty, cheap, easy to make, and cooks quickly while you enjoy a glass of wine.

Best Ever Potato Leek Soup

Avocado oil gives this vegan dish a rich, buttery flavor that’s especially satisfying, but a fruity olive oil works fine as well. Once you try this, you may never crave the greasy stuff again!

Vegan French Potato Leek Soup

1+ teaspoon sea salt
3 fat leeks, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
3-4 medium potatoes, quartered and sliced
1-2 tablespoons avocado oil or olive oil
few grinds pepper

Combine 2 quarts of water with the salt and bring to a brisk boil. Add leeks and potatoes and cook until potatoes are quite tender but still mostly intact (30-40 minutes). Add oil, taste for salt, and serve, with a bit of freshly ground pepper. Serves 4.

Grape Harvester’s Soup

Another summer’s end recipe is also irresistible in its vegan form, and can be tinkered with to suit your family’s preferences. I first tasted this soup in Provence when I helped harvest grapes with a group of Italian students (many, many years ago). To me, the most enchanting part was dumping my just-picked buckets of grapes into the side baskets of a pale grey donkey that wore its flower-decked straw hat with insouciant elegance.

Vegan Hearty Tomato Soup

1/4 cup fruity olive oil
3 large onions, thinly sliced
1+ teaspoon sea salt
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 cups chopped ripe tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon sugar or maple syrup
1/2 cup dry white OR red wine
6 cups boiling water
4 slices of crusty bread, toasted

Put oil in a soup pan over medium low heat, add onions and salt and cook until soft and golden (15-20 minutes). Stir in garlic, tomatoes and sugar or maple syrup and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add wine, increase heat to medium high and cook until wine is reduced by half. Add boiling water, reduce heat to low and simmer for 40-60 minutes. Break a piece of toast into each of four bowls, fill with soup and serve. Serves 4.

French Lentil Soup

Proper cooking makes a big difference here; overcooked lentils make a not-very-nice mush, while perfectly cooked ones are meltingly tender and flavorful. Roasted, lightly caramelized cauliflower adds depth and savory yumminess, as does a little goat cheese (just leave it out if you don’t do dairy).

French Lentil Soup With Roasted Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower, cut in small florets
1 tablespoon avocado oil
2 cups French lentils, rinsed and drained
1 onion, chopped
1 fat carrot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup stemmed parsley
1/4 cup fresh goat cheese, crumbled (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Rub a rimmed baking sheet with oil, add cauliflower and toss gently to coat. Bake at 400 until edges are crispy and lightly caramelized (40-45 minutes), set aside. Meanwhile, put lentils in a soup pot with 6 cups water and the onion, carrot, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf (if using) and bring to a simmer over low heat. Cook until tender but intact (40-50 minutes), skim off foam, add salt and paprika to taste. Put a cup of roasted cauliflower in each of 4 soup bowls, add soup and serve, garnished with parsley and goat cheese (if using). Serves 4.

Bon appetite!

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