Susan Loomis has lived in France for over twenty years, starting off in Paris, then moving with her family to an old house in Normandy that they refurbished, a story which she recounted in her best-selling book, On Rue Tatin. I’ve spent a lot of time with Susan at her home, cooking up a storm, then enjoying a wonderful meal afterwords, either outside on her lawn with the Gothic cathedral of Louviers towering over us, or in the winter, in her dining room, dining by the roaring fire.
Each meal begins with an apéritif, usually a nice glass of white wine or shot of pommeau, a barrel-aged mix of apple juice and Calvados, the local apple brandy. (Calvados usually makes an appearance after most dinners in Normandy as well.) But in all of France, l’heure d’apéro (apéritif hour) usually means that an assortment of snacks are brought out to accompany the drinks.
Susan teaches cooking classes in Normandy and in Paris, and continues to cook and write in her rustic, yet well-equipped country kitchen with friends and guests On Rue Tatin. Her appetizers are always the highlight of my visits to her, and I’m excited she is wiling to share a few of her favorites to her home. Please welcome this guest post by Susan Loomis. – David
There are certain magic moments in the French day. One is l’apéritif; the apéritif hour. It’s purpose? To allow guests to shake off the outer world, the worries, the cares of the day so that the evening with friends, around a delicious meal, will be enjoyed to the full.
I love l’apéritif. Before guests arrive, I clear one side of the work island in my kitchen and set it with glasses and small dishes I’ve prepared. When guests arrive, all is ready. This masks the fact that dinner never is. No one really notices this highly un-French behavior (French cooks are always ready when their guests arrive), because while I finish cooking, we’re all enjoying the apéritif together. My activity just becomes part of the evening’s entertainment!
I have one rule for the apéritif hour: We all drink the same thing. It might be my rum and lime punch in the summer. Otherwise, I offer wine – white, rosé, bubbly, or red. My reason is simple. I want, from the minute a guest walks in my door, for the moment to be shared fully. If everyone drinks something different, we’re not sharing. Each person is having their own experience within a group.
One of my favorite wines for apéritif is a dry white (Blanc Sec) from Peyres-Roses, in Gaillac near Toulouse. Made by my friends Astrid and Olivier Bonnafont, it’s the perfect sprightly, lively white to precede a meal. There are so many wines in France, though, that half the fun of serving an apéritif is getting to choose a wine for the moment.
Each little dishes I serve with for l’apéritif is calculated to sate, not annihilate, the appetite. One of my specialties is small cubes of feta cheese wrapped in Jambon de Bayonne, the Basque version of Italian prosciutto. A tiny, fresh sage leave is stuck in each one, then they’re macerated in extra-virgin olive oil and showered with black pepper (Voatsiperify is my favorite pepper.)
Another is more exotic. Called dukkah, it’s a Middle Eastern blend of toasted nuts and spices ground together. I serve it with crudités – seasonal, raw vegetables like fennel and radishes, endive or spring onions. To enjoy dukkah at its best, dip a crudité into olive oil, then dip it into the dukkah and crunch away.
During this season a perfect appetizer is juicy new garlic. I slice it paper-thin, arrange the slices on rounds of baguette that are slathered with lightly salted butter, then sprinkle it all with fleur de sel. Pure bliss.
I’ve noticed that the apéritif hour actually does last an hour. I believe this is because, inside of each French person is a dinner time-clock. In my experience, everyone wants to sit at table before the midnight bells ring, unless the occasion is a marriage. So, that hour up, the crowd gets restless for dinner, and I oblige. The mood is high, the conversation flowing, and everyone is ready to sit down together.
Vive l’apéritif! Vive la France!
1 1/2 cups
- ¾ cup (100g) hazelnuts or almonds
- ½ cup (70g) sesame seeds
- ½ cup (150g) pumpkin seeds
- 3 tablespoons coriander seed
- 3 tablespoons cumin seed
- 1 tablespoon fennel seed
- 2 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
- 2 scant teaspoons fleur de sel, or fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).
2. Toast the hazelnuts or almonds in the oven until they begin to turn golden and smell toasty, about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and, is using hazelnuts, transfer them to a paper bag or a tea towel which you must close around the nuts so they steam slightly and their skins blister away from the nuts. Note that hazelnuts tend to roast unevenly, and you may need to return some of them to the oven to continue roasting. When the hazelnuts are cool, rub them in the towel or bag to remove as much of the papery skin as possible. For almonds, they toast more evenly and do not need skinning.
3. Place the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet and toast them over medium heat, shaking the pan constantly, until they turn golden and smell toasty, about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan, and repeat the process with the pumpkin seeds
4. Place the coriander seeds in a small, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and toast just until they begin to smell fragrant, about 45 seconds. Remove from the heat. Repeat with the cumin seeds. Repeat with the fennel seeds.
5. Place the hazelnuts, sesame seeds, and the salt in the work bowl of the food processor and pulse until the nuts are coarsely chopped. Add the seeds, the pepper, and the paprika and process until the mixture is finely ground. Be careful not to over process so the nuts don’t become oily. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Feta Wrapped with Prosciutto
About 40 appetizers
Our neighbor, the charcutier Patrice Barbot, makes tasty little rolls like this, which tempt me each time I walk past his window. His are larger – each would make a serving – and they are ideal for a first course, atop a salad. I’ve made them small here, so that they are little bites to serve with a wonderful glass of…rosé, preferably from the Lubéron. You may use any air-cured ham, though you must be sure it is very thinly sliced.
NOTE: Turkish feta-style cheese, which has a fifty percent fat content, is unbelievably rich tasting and creamy, and perfect here. Greek feta, which is saltier and more crumbly, makes a worthy substitute.
4 ounces (120g) thinly sliced air-cured ham (such as Prosciutto),
cut in 1-inch (2.5cm) wide strips
4 ounces (120g) feta cheese cut into 1x 1/4 x 1/4-inch (2.5 x .75 x .75 cm) pieces
About 20 fresh sage leaves, cut lengthwise in half
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Lay out several strips of the ham, and place cubes of feta at one end. Lay half a sage leaf across each piece of feta so the tip of the leaf sticks out beyond the edge of the strip of ham, then roll the ham around the feta and sage. Place the roll upended in a shallow bowl so that the cheese shows, and crowd the rolls together to keep them from unrolling.
2. Continue until all of the feta and the sage are rolled inside ham strips. Pour the olive oil over the feta rolls and marinate at room temperature for 1 hour. Just before serving, sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.
Serve, using toothpicks to skewer the rolls.
Thanks to Susan Loomis for sharing her wonderful French appetizer ideas. Visit Susan at her website – On Rue Tatin, where you can find news about her books and French cooking classes. And find her on Facebook as well. (Text, recipes, and images courtesy of Susan Loomis.)
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