Saturday, July 26, 2014

Giverny, Water Lilies, and the Easiest Pie Recipe in the World

In the last decades of his life, Claude Monet, often called the Father of Impressionism, extensively painted the lily ponds, the focal point of his extensive gardens at his home in Giverny, just north-west of Paris.  Water Lilies.  He painted them at all times of the day, at all times of the year, and in all sorts of weather.  He painted them endlessly, amassing over 250 interpretations of this beloved private world he created, a world of swirling colors, hidden forms, contrasts of light and dark, abstract, concrete--a world of his own.  Unique then.  Unique now.

At first, Monet painted the lily ponds as a whole, constrained as they were by the surrounding trees and the Japanese footbridge, yet bound by a fixed horizon that grounded the scene in the accepted, traditional way.  As he explored his private space over time, he became less and less concerned with this conventional pictorial space and began to paint spatially ambiguous canvases that had no boundaries but existed merely to depict the floating plants midst the reflection of trees and sky.  As his focus became tighter and tighter, Monet produced immense, but unified compositions, that revealed a complex water world, where concrete solid objects became fragmented forms shifting in the transitory light, blurring reality as we know it to produce that singular moment of perfection that seems unbroken in its sweeping scope, containing all of nature and life in a single glimpse.  Floating lily pads, mirrored reflections, sky, water, all become one, united by the broken brushwork of the Master.

"One instant, one aspect of nature contains it all," Monet once said, referring to these masterpieces produced toward the end of his long life.  As one who seeks everywhere that interconnected unity of all life, I was touched far beyond words as I drifted, almost dreamlike, through the gardens at Giverny last April, and feasted my eyes and all my senses on the magical lily ponds, which surely are as perfect today as they were when Monet had them constructed.

Some of you readers may remember my post called "I am Monet," where I enthused over the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, letting its mystery and beauty wash over me in all sorts of light, in all sorts of weather.  That same Monet-inspired magic was obviously even more evocative at Giverny, Monet's home, where he was the architect of extensive gardens that were the inspiration for all of the Water Lily series...those ephemeral Nymphéas, Monet's timeless gift to the world.

In April of this year, just before leading my tour to Morocco, I was lucky enough to share Giverny with the wonderful women who joined me on a separate trip to Paris.  Here are a few photos of that magic world.

The Lily Ponds at Giverny
April 2014

And now... for the pie... perhaps unlovely, but oh so delicious, and oh so easy to make.  In fact, this keeper recipe is the easiest dessert I have ever baked!

Cook's Notes:  I made this pie in class a couple of weeks ago, then I made it again and yet again. Delicious and easy to prepare, this recipe is a keeper.  I just used regular flour, but the original recipe called for gluten-free.  Simply plop the ingredients into a blender, give it a whirl, and then pour it into a buttered pie pan.  Bake for an hour...and magic!

Recipe:  Crustless Coconut Custard Pie
(Recipe from

4 eggs
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup gluten-free all purpose (or other) flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup flaked coconut

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease a 10-inch pie pan or baking dish.

Combine eggs, butter, sugar, flour, baking powder, milk, vanilla, salt, and coconut in a blender. Blend until smooth.  Pour into pan.  Bake 1 hour.  Let cool before serving.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Trips
San Miguel de Allende,

Friday, July 18, 2014

Moroccan-Inspired Chicken Patties with Date Confit--and More Photos from Morocco

Moroccan-Inspired Chicken Patties with Date Confit

Moroccan-Inspired Chicken Patties with Date Confit--and More Photos from Morocco
by Victoria Challancin

No one has said it better than food maven Paula Wolfert, who wrote so thoroughly and so lovingly about Morocco and its heady cuisine.  To paraphrase her, Moroccan food is spicy, but not really piquant.  If you want chile heat, you simply provide the rich condiment called harissa (see my recipe and article here) at the table, to be passed separately so that diners can add the piquancy they want.  But the actual use of spices in Moroccan cuisine is always judicious, as if each cook knows just the perfect amount of each spice required to enhance her dish, without ever overwhelming the whole, without ever allowing one note to dominate the harmonious union of the seductive blend of ingredients.

Although you might never find this particular dish in Morocco, the flavors are true to the cuisine, resulting in a rich, thoroughly modern interpretation of Moroccan flavors.  Using a spice blend called ras el hanout to enliven the chicken patty and a pomegrante molasses-rich confit of dates to round out the flavors, this recipe is a wonderful way to experience the flavors of Morocco.

Cook's Notes:  This is such a lovely recipe as written that I don't think I even tampered with it, a rare thing for me.  And if you are lucky enough to have leftovers of this dish, the taste just improves the next day.  My sister-in-law made these for a party appetizer and served them with my Chermoula Sauce (see my recipe here and lots of ideas for how to use it here), which also worked beautifully.  Lovely flavors.  Did I skip the cucumber and onion relish?  I can't imagine that I did, but then, I don't see it anywhere.  Just cilantro leaves.  Yikes!

Recipe:  Moroccan-Inspired Chicken Patties with Date Confit
Serves 4 as a light meal and up to 12 as an hors d'oeuvres

For the chicken patties:
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (I purchase pre-ground)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
2 teaspoons Ras el Hanout (see my recipe here)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon light brown sugar

For serving:
16 small hearts of lettuce leaves
4-inch piece English cucumber, quartered lengthwise, seeded and diced
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 handful cilantro leaves

For the date confit:
20 ready-to-eat pitted dates, halved (use Medjool, if possible)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Thai (or serrano) chile, finely chopped
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the date confit:
Put the dates in a bowl, cover with just-boiled water and leave for 1 hour.  Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet and fry the shallots, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until very soft.

Drain the dates and add them to the pan, squashing them with the back of a fork to break them down.  Stir in 4 tablespoons water, the cinnamon, chile and sugar and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until it forms a thick jam consistency.  Add more water if it is too thick.  Stir in the pomegranate molasses and season to taste with salt and pepper. You can blend the mixture if you prefer a smoother consistency.  Spoon the confit into a serving bowl and allow to cool.

To make the chicken patties:
Heat the oven to 100 degrees.  Grind the chicken in a food processor (or use pre-ground, as I did), then stir in the garlic, ginger, and ras el hanout.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Form the chicken mixture into 16 equal balls, about the size of golf balls.  Flatten each one to make a little patty.

Heat two-thirds of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Fry the patties, in two or three batches, if necessary, for 3 minutes on each side.  Just before they finish cooking on each side, sprinkle with a little sugar and cook until slightly caramelized.  Drain on paper towels and keep warm in the low oven while you cook the remaining patties, adding more oil as necessary.

For serving:
Put a chicken patty on top of each lettuce leaf, scatter a little cucumber, red onion and cilantro over and top with a spoonful of the date confit.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

                                    Moroccan-Inspired Chicken Patties with Date Confit

           More Images from my Moroccan Trip in April 2014:

Like what you see?  Why not join me in either October of 2014 or April of 2015 on my next tours of Morocco--beautiful, seductive Morocco.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Trips
San Miguel de Allende,

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Souk Cuisine--A Very Special Cooking Class in Marrakech--and a Recipe!

Shopping for local herbs and skins in Marrakech

Souk Cuisine--a Very Special Cooking Class in Marrakech
by Victoria Challancin

Souk Cuisine.  The very name conjures up magic for me.  Long-enchanted with souks, bazars, and markets all over the world, I find that they are usually my first destination when traveling.  Imagine the thrill for me of taking an actual cooking class smack dab in the middle of Marrakech's ancient medina, preparing a cuisine I love, filled with fun students and led by a delightful and knowledgeable teacher!  A perfect combination of ingredients, literally and figuratively.

I have been trying for several years to schedule a cooking class with Gemma, a savvy Dutch entrepreneur who has made Marrakech her home as well as the base for her very successful cooking school appropriately called "Souk Cuisine."  In April, after the group I led (my ninth!) departed Marrakech, I finally was able to take this class.  Gemma puts the skills she learned in hotel school in Holland to good use with her lively business.  Not content just to provide a cooking experience, Gemma starts the class by handing your group shopping lists and wallets holding enough dirhams to buy what you need for the day's menu!  Of course, she doesn't entirely throw you to the wolves, rather she leads you through the souk, greeting well-known and respected vendors along the way, teaching us about the ingredients we will prepare.

We stop to buy spices...
and to receive a lesson about the qualities of saffron and how not to be duped by one of lesser quality

We turn our tongues yellow with the real stuff

We buy some smen, the slightly fermented butter loved all over North Africa

We even taste the lovely smen flavored with dried meat

We purchase olives and preserved lemon (and I learn that the brightest, most yellow ones aren't the preferred type to use!)

We also buy a bit of olive oil sold to us in a recycled Coca-cola bottle, with a wad of cardboard to seal it
We stop at the local "grocery store" for flour, baking powder, and ground almonds, bargaining as we go

The cooking class is given in a small riad (a larger one is used for larger groups than our six) and has two Morrocan cooks on hand to help

The mise en place is ready for us, complete with the fresh saffron protected by paper

We thought we'd never get the herbs chopped fine enough for the Moroccan cooks who watched over us and scolded us with sign language when we fell short!

The chicken was left to marinate in chermoula, a Moroccan sauce/marinade rich with garlic and herbs
(My version of chermoula can be found here--plus numerous ways to use it!  And my own recipe for a chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemon can be found here--and with it, of course, a lesson on tagines!)

We make briouts filled with vegetables and using the local purchased warka, which resembles phyllo dough

The briouts, fried and ready to eat!
The finished chicken tagine, bursting with flavor

A selection of salads we prepared (mine is the eggplant next to the carrots)

Once you've tried Moroccan'll be hooked forever!

(Learn what all the fuss is about in my two-part series on Moroccan salads here and here, plus my recipe for Moroccan Raw Carrot Salad here)

And now, with Gemma's permission, I give you the absolute BEST Moroccan carrot salad I have ever tasted--and I've made and tasted quite a few!

Cook's Notes:  Although I didn't make the salad in class, Stefan did and he clearly peeled the almonds (blanching in boiling water makes it simple).  They could also be fried in a touch of olive oil, if desired.  When I made this at home, I didn't take the core out of the carrot, though Stefan did, under the strict tutelage of his Moroccan overseer!  Apparently, she also indicated that they should not be cubed, but rather left in long pieces.  This, of course, is up to you.  Use argan oil if you are lucky enough to have it; extra-virgin olive oil, if not. And please, don't shy away from the orange flower water, which gives the dish such a special, yet ver subtle, touch.

Recipe:  Moroccan Carrot Salad from Souk Cuisine

Moroccan Carrot Salad with Almonds and Raisins

1 kg carrots
100g raisins
100g almonds, unpeeled
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
6 teaspoons sugar (2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon orange flower water
2 tablespoons argan oil (or top quality olive oil)

Peel the carrots and slice them lengthways.  Remove the inner core of the carrots and cut into cubes. Boil carrots in salted water. Drain after 15 minutes and leave a small quantity of water in the pan. Place again on the stove over low heat.  Add ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, raisins, almonds, sugar, orange flower water and oil.  Simmer until carrots are well-cooked.  Serve the salad lukewarm or cold.
My version, made at home once I returned

I have been lucky enough to take classes from some of the best cooks in the world:  Jacques Pépin, Julia Child, Martin Yan, Madhur Jaffrey, Rick Bayless... and others.  All worthy.  All fascinating.
But I can honestly say that this class, with Souk Cuisine and Gemma, was my favorite ever.  I will definitely schedule one on my next trip.

Want to join me?  Let's take a class with Gemma together on my next trip in April of 2015 and possibly in October of this year as well!

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School (and Trips!)
San Miguel de Allende,

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Glorious Morocco!

Flavors of the Sun

Glorious Morocco!
by Victoria Challancin

I'm back!  Many thanks to those of you who have written to ask why I have fallen off the grid, but let me assure you that all is well.  I just led two fantastic groups to both Paris and Morocco and will soon be ready to share my experiences--and new recipes--with you.   For now...a casual glimpse into the heart of glorious Morocco.
 Eating oysters and razor clams on the beach in Safi, Morocco

Like what you see?  Come join me in October 2014 or April 2015 for the real thing!

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Trips

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico