French Four Spice (Quatre Épices)

As you all know by now I'm off enjoying a two week vacation to Paris with my husband. We're staying in the arrondissement des Gobelins, or 13th arrondissement. This out of the way section of the city isn't as popular with tourists, but the quiet residential area appeals to me and our hotel is located within meters of a metro stop giving us easy access to the rest of the city. It's also within walking distance of the largest Chinatown in Europe, which I can't wait to explore. This trip is sure to be an amazing adventure full of new people, new tastes, beautiful architecture, and museums I never dreamed of seeing. I'll make sure to give you all an update once I return.

Since discovering that I was going to be taking a trip to France I've done all I can to read up on their cuisine. Much like the different regions of the U.S. each region of France has it's own distinct style of cooking. Île-de-France the district where Paris is located is somewhat of a melting pot when it comes to food. You can expect to find the latest in haute cuisine as well as more traditional dishes from other regions. During my reading I was surprised to discover how simple, yet flavorful many of the regional dishes were. I think due to the reputation the French have with elevating food to a whole new level many people wrongfully assume that it is difficult to prepare. As I've discovered that isn't the case with many regional dishes, which are very unlike the haute cuisine of Paris that typically comes to mind when many people think of French cooking. While I'm off on my trip I'll be sharing several recipes with you that even the most inexperienced cook will be able to prepare at home with little difficulty.

I'll be starting off with a blend of spices called French Four Spice, or quatre épices. Even if you don't commonly cook French cuisine it's a great spice blend to have on hand. In traditional French cooking it is commonly used to add depth to charcuterie (prepared meats such as sausage or ham) as well as soups, stews, and desserts. When I first discovered it I was surprised by how much it resembled the combination of spices I use to make gingerbread; all the blend lacked was all-spice, which I later found is sometimes added to the blend in place of ginger. At first it seemed like an odd combination to use with savory dishes, but when combined with a little kosher salt it quickly became one of my favorite spice rubs to use with pork roast. I hope you enjoy experimenting with it as much as I have.

French Four Spice
makes 4 - 6 servings

Ingredients

3 Tablespoons white pepper, ground
2 Tablespoons nutmeg, ground
2 Tablespoons ginger, ground
1 Tablespoon cloves, ground

Directions

  • Combine white pepper, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Mix well and store in an airtight container.

Egg Drop Soup

Ahhh, Chinese food, I get hungry just thinking about you.  

If you couldn't tell, I'm a Chinese food addict and many of my favorite memories happen to coincide with a meal of Chinese takeout. I almost always start with a bowl of Egg Drop soup. When I was in college I was a Wednesday night regular at the Chinese buffet near school. I would sit around with friends studying for my 7pm graphic design class, stuffing myself silly and cramming for those pop quizzes Matt (my professor) was always fond of having. We had a lot of fun in those days, until the great ice storm of aught-six caused the roof to collapse. Sadly, they never reopened after that, but parts of the St. Louis area, including the University, were without power for several weeks due to the severity of the storm.

To this day I miss that restaurant, they had the best wait-staff I've ever encountered. They knew their regulars by name and always remembered what they preferred to drink. Before I managed to fill a plate my waitress had my drink of choice ready and waiting for me at the table. After my first few visits she didn't have to ask me what I wanted, she just knew.

That my friends is the sign of a good waitress.

My fond memories of Egg Drop soup actually go back quite a bit farther than my college days, all the way back to kindergarten. My teacher Mrs. K let us make it in class one day (it's a shame they don't let teachers do things like that anymore because that is one of my most vivid memories of school.) I don't remember why we were making it, but to 5 year old me it was absolutely fascinating to sit on the carpet watching her spoon long ribbons of egg into the pot. This is why it will be one of the first recipes I teach my son how to make. Since Chinese New Year is coming up later this month I thought I would share this comforting classic with you. It is especially tasty when you're sick or on a cold winter day when you need to warm up.

In other words, it is perfect for this unusually cold January weather we're having this year.

EggDropSoup.jpg

Egg Drop Soup
makes approximately 2-3 servings

Ingredients

2 large eggs
16 oz chicken stock
⅛ teaspoon ginger
⅛ teaspoon white pepper
¼ teaspoon salt (if you are using commercially prepared stock, omit this since it already has salt in it)

Garnish:

green onions
black pepper 

Directions

  • In a sauce pan combine chicken stock, ginger, white pepper and salt, then bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  • While waiting for stock to boil, slice green onions and set aside. 
  • In a separate bowl, beat eggs until whites and yolks are well combines and set aside.
  • Once soup has begun to boil, turn heat to low. 

Don't add eggs while the broth is boiling, it will cause the ribbons to break up, leaving you with clumps of scrambled eggs instead.

  • Using a fork or slotted spoon, slowly drizzle egg into the broth making a circular motion above the pot.

If you are having trouble making the ribbons with a fork, try using a mesh strainer. It will allow the eggs to pass through slowly, ensuring your ribbons remain delicate. 

  • Garnish with black pepper and sliced green onions, then serve immediately.

This soup is best when served warm, as it cools the egg ribbons have a tendency to sink to the bottom.

Spicy Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Mashed potatoes are a staple in this house for any holiday meal and in the past I've often spent hours in the kitchen preparing huge batches of fluffy potatoes loaded up with sour cream and butter. Several years ago I was looking to add a bit of variety to our holiday menu so I started making mashed sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner. They quickly became one of my favorite side dishes to prepare, if only because they are much less time consuming to make than regular mashed potatoes. There is no peeling or boiling involved and very little mashing, so it is a huge time saver during an already jam packed week. I need every extra minute I can get during the holidays, don't you? They also make an excellent side dish to chicken or pork and I make them often when sweet potatoes are in season. This year I decided to dress them up a little bit with some cayenne pepper, cumin, ginger and white pepper just to give them a little kick. If you're looking for something just a little bit different this year give these a try, I'm positive they'll become a staple in your home too.
Spicy Mashed Sweet Potatoes
makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients

3lbs sweet potatoes (this ended up being 4-5 medium potatoes)
4 Tablespoons salted butter, melted
2 Tablespoons maple syrup (I used Grade A Golden Amber)
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ginger 

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400°F. Scrub potatoes, place on a foil lined baking sheet, and puncture each potato with a knife or fork (to allow steam to escape.)
  • Bake for 1 hour if using medium sized potatoes, or longer if using large sized potatoes. Large potatoes can take up to 2 hours to bake. If you're in a hurry, or the oven is in use, you can also cook the sweet potatoes in the microwave on high for 10 - 15 minutes.
  • Remove potatoes from the oven or microwave and let them cool before removing skins.
  • Scrape the potatoes into a mixing bowl, then add melted butter, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, white pepper, cumin and ginger.
  • Use a mixer or potato masher to combine ingredients. Serve the potatoes immediately, or make this dish ahead of time and reheat the day of your event. Enjoy!