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Wells Whets Appetites For Spring

Celebrated food writer Patricia Wells is an American who has lived in France for 25 years. During that time, she's been educating Americans about the pleasures of fine French cuisine.

She stopped by The Early Show Friday to serve up some of her favorite recipes for spring, from her ninth cookbook, "The Provence Cookbook."

Wells says Provence dishes aren't fussy. The food of Provence is based on traditional family cooking. Even the simplest of recipes can yield dishes with extraordinary flavor.

Provence is described as one of the most beautiful regions of France. Garlic and tomatoes are featured heavily in Provencal cooking, as is olive oil, which is regarded by the locals as "liquid gold." A Mediterranean influence brings hot spices and seafoods. Because of the mountainous country, without rich farmlands and herds of dairy cattle, Provencal cooking uses very little milk, and goat cheeses are predominant.

Wells abides by three simple cooking rules: buy the best, keep it simple, and don't embellish it a lot.

She says spring cooking should start with lots of brightly colored dishes.

To read an excerpt from "The Provence Cookbook," click here.

FRICASSEE: A dish of meat (usually chicken) that has been sautéed in butter before being stewed with vegetables. The result is a thick, chunky stew, often flavored with wine.

VERVEINE/LEMON VERBENA – Wells says, "I don't think I had ever seen a live verveine, or lemon verbena, plant before moving to Provence in the early 1980s. And I didn't have a good opinion of this herb, which is used in dried form and stuffed into tiny sachets to be sold in cafes as an infusion de verveine. Most often, resulting liquid (doesn't taste very good).

"But, oh, snip a fresh plant-or just swish your hand over it as you walk by -- and you are in another world! The aroma is so deep and dense, it is like a lemon tree on a high! With its dense spiky leaves the color of spring, and its tiny mauve-toned flowers, this perennial shrub can grow up to 16 feet tall in Provence.

"It is one of those shrubs that emerges late in spring, and after a cold Provencal winter, one will think it has indeed given up. But, no, more often than not the lemon verbena plants survive and then thrive in the dry heat of summer.

"I have planted lemon verbena all over the place: in the vegetable garden, where it thrives, as well as along the entry to the house, so that on a dark evening, I need walk only a few steps to clip the herb for tea infusions, for a favorite sorbet, or for snipping into a chiffonade and scattering over a chilled zucchini soup."

Provencal wisdom has it that, in the summertime, if you drink lemon verbena tea all day long, you will never be bitten by a mosquito!


Broccoli, Avocado, and Pistachios with Pistachio Oil

Says Wells, "There are days when I simply crave broccoli, and on one of those days I created this salad, which has become a favorite in our household and with students in my cooking classes. I love the green on green (the broccoli with the avocado) and the texture and sweetness added by the pistachios and pistachio oil."

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup pistachio oil, pine nut oil, almond oil, or extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons coarse sea salt
8 ounces broccoli florets (about 2 cups)
1 ripe avocado
1/4 cup salted pistachios, coarsely chopped
Fleur de sel to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste

1) In a small jar, combine the lemon juice and fine sea salt, and stir to blend. Add the oil, cover the jar, and shake to blend.

2) Prepare a large bowl of ice water.

3) Bring a large pot of boiling water to boil over high heat. Add the coarse sea salt and the broccoli. Boil, uncovered, until the broccoli is crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Immediately drain the broccoli and plunge the florets into the ice water so they cool down as quickly as possible and retain their crispness and bright green color. (The vegetable will cool in 1 to 2 minutes. After that, it will soften and begin to lose crispness and flavor.) Transfer the broccoli to a colander and drain.

4) Halve, peel, and very thinly slice the avocado. Arrange a mound of broccoli in the center of a serving plate. Arrange the avocado slices in a circle around the broccoli. Sprinkle with the pistachios. Drizzle with the lemon and oil mixture, then season with salt and pepper. Let infuse 3 to 4 minutes before serving as a first course or a vegetable course.

Serves 4

Raspberry-Almond Financiers

Wells asks, "OK, which do I love better? The butter-rich almond financiers with their golden glow and tender crust, or those brilliant red fruits of the summer, raspberries? Well, one can get one's fill of both in these prized summer cookies, a delight when paired with a light raspberry sorbet. I make these first thing in the morning, when the house is still cool. The rectangular cookies should be made the day they are served, but can easily rest for eight hours before serving. Plan on serving three financiers per dinner, depending, of course, on appetites!"

A pastry brush; 21 financier models measuring 1 3/4 inches by 3 1/2 inches

12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled (3/4 cup)
1 cup ground almonds
1 2/3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup egg whites (5 or 6)
About 8 ounces fresh raspberries, rinsed and drained

1) Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. With a pastry brush, thoroughly butter the financier molds, using a bit of the melted butter. Arrange the molds side-by-side, but not touching, on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet with the buttered molds in the freezer to re-solidify the butter (and make the financiers easier to unmold)

2) In a large bowl, combine the almonds, sugar, flour, and salt. Mix to blend. Add the egg whites and mix until thoroughly blended. The mixture will be fairly thin and pourable.

3) Spoon the butter into the molds, filling almost to the rim. Place the baking sheet in the center of the oven. Bake until the financiers just begin to rise, about 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully arrange four raspberries in a single row down the center of each. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees F. Return the financiers to the oven and bake until they are a light, delicate brown and are beginning to firm up, another 7 minutes. Turn off the oven and let the financiers rest in the oven until firm, about 7 minutes.

4) Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the financiers cool in the molds for 10 minutes. Unmold. (Note: Wash molds immediately with a stiff brush in hot water without detergent, so they retain their seasoning.)

21 Financiers

Financier molds can be ordered from:
Previn Incorporated
Telephone: (215) 985-1996
Fax: (215) 985-0323

Fricassee of Chicken with White Wine, Capers, and Olives

"For me," Wells observes, "this is comfort food personified. I love the entire process of browning the pieces of chicken, then surrounding them in a big copper pot with all manner of delights, especially my favored trio of tomatoes, olives, and capers. This dish is even better the next day, once the flavors have been allowed to blend. Nothing makes me happy like the leftovers!"

A deep 12-inch skillet with a lid

1 fresh farm chicken (3 to 4 pounds) cut into 8 serving pieces, at room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
2 cups white wine
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled cored, seeded, and chopped
1 cup Picholine green olives, pitted (or substitute pimiento-stuffed olives)
1/4 cup capers in vinegar, drained

1) Liberally season the chicken on all sides with salt and pepper.

2) In the skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the chicken pieces and brown until the poultry turns an even golden color, about 5 minutes. Turn the pieces and brown them on the other side, 5 minutes more. Carefully regulate the heat to avoid scorching the skin. This may have to be done in batches. When all the pieces are browned, use tongs (to avoid piercing the meat) to transfer them to a platter.

3) Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and sweat-cook, covered, over low heat until soft but not browned-for about 3 minutes. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the wine, tomatoes, olives, and capers. Cover and simmer over low heat until the chicken is cooked through, about 1 hour. Taste for seasoning. Serve with rice or fresh pasta.

Wine Suggestion: A truly simple white is nice here. Try the lovely Cotes du Rhone from the Chateauneuf du Pape vineyard of le Grand Veneur.

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