French cooking - `a generous thing'. Roger Verg'e, famed chef and restaurateur, shares his philosophy for entertaining with effortless elegance
There is a certain charm, an elegance, about many things the French do - not just in restaurants and high fashion, but in the way food is presented, the way they set a table, the way they entertain. It all seems so easy and effortless, and stylish. No one understands this kind of ambiance better than chef Roger Verg'e, world-famous owner of the three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence, who shared some of his philosophy of cooking and entertaining on a wintry day on a recent visit to Boston.
``Today a chef must have more than the technique of his craft. He must reflect contemporary lifestyles, a better understanding of products and of the symbolic and even imaginary values of food,'' he said. ``Cooking is a generous thing. It's part of living and giving and enjoying.''
Inspired by the sunny climate of southern France, Mr. Verg'e's approach to dining emphasizes fresh ingredients, fewer courses, superb presentation, and an eye for detail that can make a table into a beautiful, colorful picture.
The ancient windmill that he turned into one of the finest restaurants in the world has made its owner famous far beyond the little village of Mougins in Provence. There he features local foods - fresh vegetables, fruits and berries, and, of great importance to chef Verg'e, the fragrant, aromatic wild herbs and flowers that cover the surrounding fields and hills.
Some of the secrets behind the French flair for entertaining are collected in this chef's newest book, ``Roger Verg'e's Entertaining in the French Style'' (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $45). The lively text includes 135 luminous color photographs of elegant dishes in idyllic settings by Pierre Hussenot.
Twenty beautiful meals pictured in glorious gardens in the south of France, in wonderfully rustic interiors and in a variety of exquisite sunlit dining rooms, are teamed up with recipes, table settings and suggestions for linens, china, and themes for the ambiance.
Verg'e's wife, Denise, is a great collector of antiques and it is she who is largely responsible for the decoration of the restaurants and the flower arrangements.
Verg'e enjoys using fresh herbs and flowers in his cooking. A menu he titles ``A Luncheon of Flowers'' includes red nasturtiums garnishing seafood and leeks; zucchini flowers stuffed with truffles; lamb roasted with wild thyme blossoms; orange meringue tarts with lavender flowers, and acacia flower beignets with powdered sugar.
Recipes are mostly dishes chef Verg'e cooks for friends and family, or food he has enjoyed at the tables of culinary colleagues. Some recipes come from famed restaurateurs like Madame Point of Le Pyramide; others from his adored mentor, Aunt Celestine, who took him shopping when he was very young, and taught him much in her own kitchen.
``Eating is part of culture,'' Verg'e said, telling of the pleasure he has with his 7-year-old daughter, Cordelia, who enjoys learning to cook. ``The right place for young people to learn is in the kitchen, at home,'' he says. ``To me, the home kitchen should be a family room.''
Each menu in his new book has an appealing, sometimes whimsical theme that is usually easy to reproduce. Specific kinds of flatware, china, silver and linens, centerpieces, and flowers are suggested.
The book has a comprehensive guide for shopping and serving French cheeses. Each recipe lists the relative difficulty, cost, and time required. The chef also includes anecdotes and culinary insights that underscore his sophisticated informality.
Compromises or conveniences such as using canned bouillon or bouillon cubes and frozen vegetables are not rampant, but Verg'e mentions frozen products which he says are ``clearly not as good as fresh products, but can contribute to a delicious meal if supplemented with fresh herbs, a nice tomato, a few ounces of originality , and a lot of love.''
Verg'e explains that he wrote the book for home cooks, not professional chefs. There are some recipes from his mother and from friends, to give special character to each menu. ``The atmosphere, too, is very important,'' he explains.
Chef Verg'e's early training was in France, and he has worked as a chef in Africa, Switzerland, and Jamaica. He has won many distinguished culinary awards, and is co-producer of a series of French television programs. His cooking school, ``L'Ecole de Moulin,'' is in Mougins. Le D^ome de Fromage Frais aux Herbes Vertes (Dome of Fresh Cheese With Green Herbs) 1 small white onion 1 clove garlic 1 pound chilled fresh fromage blanc, drained, or 11/2 cups small-curd cottage cheese and 1/2 cup plain yogurt, at room temperature 1 tablespoon strong Dijon mustard 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper Salt 1 cup cr`eme fra^iche or heavy cream 3 small heads Bibb lettuce, or other soft lettuce 1 bunch parsley 1 bunch chives Bread slices
This fresh cheese should be prepared at least 12 hours before serving.
Peel the onion and garlic. Grate the onion as finely as possible into a large mixing bowl. Crush the garlic through a press into the bowl. Add the cheese, mustard, pepper, and salt. Beat the mixture with a whisk until well blended.
In a medium mixing bowl, beat 1/2 cup of the cr`eme fra^iche until thick. Do not overwhip. Add the cr`eme to the cheese and blend thoroughly.
Turn the mixture into a fine sieve placed over a medium mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let drain in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.
Fifteen minutes before serving, preheat the broiler. Wash and drain the lettuce and separate the leaves. Finely chop the parsley and chives.
Remove the cheese from the refrigerator and sprinkle with some of the herbs. Invert the dome of cheese onto a chilled serving platter. Sprinkle the dome with the remaining herbs, gently pressing them into the cheese.
Toast the bread slices under the broiler.
Surround the cheese with the lettuce leaves. Drizzle the remaining cr`eme fra^iche over the top of the cheese and place the toasted bread in a basket. Serve the dome of cheese with the warm bread. Les Tartelettes aux Pommes et aux Noix (Individual Apple and Walnut Tarts) 2/3 cup unsalted butter, softened 2/3 cup granulated sugar 3 eggs 11/4 cups flour 2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts 3 tart apples, such as Granny Smiths 1/3 cup powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a mixing bowl, combine butter and granulated sugar and blend thoroughly. Add eggs one at a time, blending well after each. Stir in flour and walnuts and blend well.
Divide batter among 6 butter tart molds, patting it evenly over the bottom of each.
Peel, core, and slice apples thinly. Divide apple slices among 6 tarts, arranging attractively on batter.
Place in preheated oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until batter puffs slightly and edges are golden. Sprinkle tarts with powdered sugar and return to oven to brown slightly, about 5 minutes.
These tarts need be reheated in a very low oven for only about 3 minutes before serving. They are best served warm, not hot. La Compote de Poivrons Doux aux Anchois (Roasted Sweet Pepper and Anchovy Compote) 30 flat anchovy fillets, drained (about three 2-ounce cans) Milk 6 large, fleshy sweet red or yellow peppers 3 cloves garlic 18 fresh basil leaves 6 fresh mint leaves 2/3 cup virgin olive oil 3/4 teaspoon thyme flowers, fresh thyme, or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme Freshly ground pepper 12 thick slices country-style bread
Place anchovy fillets in a small bowl. Add enough milk to cover and let soak.
Place peppers under broiler. Roast, turning frequently until skin is blackened on all sides. (This can also be done by piercing the pepper with a wood-handled fork and holding over the flame of a gas burner or over a grill.) When peppers are charred, hold under cold water and peel off black skin. Remove stems and seeds. Slice peppers into long, thing strips.
Peel and chop garlic. Chop basil and mint.
Heat oil in a heavy medium skillet. Add peppers and thyme flowers and simmer over very low heat 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, drain anchovy fillets and pat dry. Add to skillet and stir with a wooden spoon until the anchovies have ``melted.''
Remove skillet from heat and stir in garlic, basil, and mint. Season with pepper. Turn mixture into a large mixing bowl or earthenware crock.
Just before serving, toast 12 slices of country-style bread and serve on a platter with pepper compote and knives for spreading compote on bread. Hard-cooked eggs, black Ni,coise olives, and flaked white tuna can be served along with this compote.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.