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Home cooking, with a French twist

A group of Americans savor a gastronomic feast and learn some French cooking tips at the Normandy home of an award-winning author.

By PAMELA GRINER LEAVY, Special to the Times
Published July 26, 2006

[Special to the Times: Jim Leavy]
Susan Herrmann Loomis prepares Tarte Tatin in her kitchen in Normandy as American visitors watch.

The exterior of Loomis’ home in Louviers.

LOUVIERS, France -- Romancing real food describes Sunday lunch in the Normandy kitchen of Susan Herrmann Loomis, author of the memoir-with-recipes book On Rue Tatin, and host of her trademark Cooking Classes on Rue Tatin. The seductive fragrance of Loomis' signature dessert, Tarte Tatin, an upside-down apple tart flavored with vanilla sugar, greeted us as we entered her 17th century half-timbered home and sky-lit kitchen.

A group of 12 hungry Americans in Paris recently journeyed 1 hours by train to the country town of Louviers in search of a French country home-cooked meal reminiscent of the sensual 1986 cuisine-centered film Babette's Feast. We found it at 1 Rue Tatin with Loomis, author of eight cookbooks, and contributor to Bon Appetit, Gourmet and France magazines, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio.

Loomis who offers a family-style country lunch by reservation only in her French home, also teaches classes in Seattle, her U.S. base, and in the Left Bank Paris studio kitchen of Patricia Wells, food critic for the International Herald Tribune and author of The Food Lover's Guide to Paris.

Minutes after our arrival at 1 Rue Tatin, not far from Monet's home and the gardens of Giverny, we learned what makes cooking here so different than cooking in American kitchens.

In Loomis' kitchen, there isn't a microwave or can of non-stick cooking spray in sight. Instead of wine tasting, a salt tasting around the work island led the afternoon. French cooks consider salt a food, not merely a condiment.

Loomis shocked us when she said she deplored "grassy" undercooked vegetables. Instead, she said, green beans and brussels sprouts should be steamed or braised until their full flavor comes to fruition. She swore that size and shape do matter when it comes to serving and slicing high-quality cheese. Debates over dieting were forbidden in the kitchen and at the dining table, all chatter that Loomis deemed "depressing."

In the spirit of trail-blazing chef Julia Child who called for dining to be a "primal, soul-satisfying, innocent delight," Loomis espoused a similar bar the food police approach.

"There are no shoulds, but I think if people could relax and think about cooking and dining as a pleasurable experience they would be way better off," she said.

We sipped local apple cider - the region is famous for its apple brandy called calvados - in the kitchen while the main course, chicken tajine with honeyed apples, simmered in a copper pot on a pine-green custom-built Cometto gas range with large double ovens.

Meanwhile, our attention focused on Loomis' upside-down apple tarte, the French rival to apple pie. The secret is in the apples, she said, urging us to buy only the best and most seasonal fruit. Apples caramelized on the stove as Loomis began pastry preparation. (We include here a simpler recipe that calls for frozen puff pastry.)

The tarte baked as we adjourned to the family dining room for a long lunch of chicken tajine, brussels sprouts braised in olive oil and water, green salad from the Louviers street market, Normandy cheeses and then the warm Tarte Tatin, topped with fresh cream.

Our group didn't grouse about the grand finale, the French practice of serving coffee after dessert, a practice many Americans find irritating. Loomis pacified us by serving strong espresso with little pieces of her homemade quince candy.

Sunday lunch on Rue Tatin evoked nostalgic family memories for some of the participants.

"As I stood in the warm confines of that stranger's kitchen with people I hardly knew, I felt for a few moments as if I was back home," said Allyn Hertzbach. "I had the vivid image of my mother shuffling in my father's slippers into the kitchen, robe akimbo, and asking me what I wanted to eat - almost the first thing she would say to me."

Loomis, 50, first traveled to France in 1980 to begin serious French cooking lessons, a move designed to fuse a journalism background with cooking. A pivotal event soon underscored her quest. Wells, then a food writer for the New York Times, needed a research and recipe testing apprentice. Loomis met Wells' requirements and they've been collaborating ever since.

Fast forward to 2006 and mentor and apprentice share award-winning cooking credentials. In 1990, Wells won an International Academy of Culinary Professionals, best European cookbook award for her Bistro Cooking. In 2002, Loomis took home the IACP best literary food book award for On Rue Tatin, a personal look at life in a small French town and the remodeling of her home. More cookbooks followed and Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin was published last year.

In mid April, Loomis taught a weeklong class in Wells' Paris studio. Though students from as far away as Dallas, New York, Michigan and Destin were told Wells wouldn't attend, she made a surprise visit, calling out "what's cooking?" She should have known from the aromas of garlic, lemon oil, and scallops with Wasabi cream infusing her blue-and-white kitchen.

"Susan brings a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to the kitchen, helping all cooks bring pleasures to the table and thus family and friends," Wells said.

The mentor and the protege. Passing along what they know to foodies hungry for authentic experience and food.

Pamela Griner Leavy is a freelance writer, a former St. Petersburg resident now living in Paris.

Scallops Simply Cooked with Wasabi Cream

12 very thin rounds of radish

1 medium carrot, trimmed and cut into very thin slices

Wasabi cream:

1/2 cup creme fraiche

1/2 to 1 teaspoon wasabi paste

Fine sea salt

For the scallops:

12 large scallops, freshly shucked, trimmed of muscle, refrigerated until just before cooking

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

The zest of 1 lemon, minced

Sea salt

Fresh Italian leaf parsley for garnish

Bring a small pan of heavily salted water to a boil. Prepare a bowl of ice water. Add the radish slices to the boiling water and when it returns to a rolling simmer, blanch the radish slices just until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the radish rounds to the ice water. When they are chilled through, transfer them to a clean towel to dry. Return the water to a boil and repeat with the carrot slices, which will blanch to tenderness in about 1 minute. Cool carrots in ice water and set aside with radishes.

Prepare the wasabi cream: Whisk the cream in a cold bowl with a cold whisk until it makes stiff points. (You could also whip in a bowl with mixer.) Whisk in the wasabi, season with a touch of salt, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Place the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, place the scallops in the pan, round side down. Season the scallops on top with lemon zest and cook until the scallop is nearly cooked through and feels firm when you apply pressure with your thumb and forefinger around the top, about 4 minutes.

While the scallops are cooking, arrange the radish and carrot slices on four slightly warmed dinner plates; closely overlap three radish slices slightly off to the side of the plate, then slip carrot rounds well under them, so the rim of the carrot slices just show on the outside edge. When the scallops are cooked, transfer three to each of the four plates, setting them atop the vegetable slices. Season with salt. Place several dollops of cream around the scallops and vegetables and garnish with fresh herbs.

Serves 4.

Source: Susan Herrmann Loomis.

Easy Apple Tarte Tatin

41/2 pounds Golden Delicious apples (about 10)

7 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

For the pastry:

1 sheet frozen puff pastry or 1 refrigerated pie crust

Core the apples with an apple corer. Peel and halve them. With the cut side down, trim off a small slice from each side of the apples so they can stand on their sides.

In a 10-inch oven-proof skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sugar and lemon juice and mix well.

Starting on the outside of the pan, stand the apple halves on their sides, one next to the other. The skillet should be as tightly filled as possible. If there are holes, cut a piece of apple to fill it in.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Continue to cook the apples over medium-high heat for 25 to 30 minutes. When the sugar bubbling around the apples is pale brown in color, place the skillet in the oven for 5 minutes.

While the apples are cooking defrost the puff pastry as directed on package. If using pie crust, also follow package directions for using. If using a rectangular piece of puff pastry, trim the corners. You will use the pie crust as is.

Remove the apples from the oven, increase the heat to 475 degrees. Drape the pastry over the pan. Carefully tuck the pastry between the apples and the sides of the skilletsing a small paring knife. Place the skillet back in the oven and cook for 20 to 25 minutes or until the pastry is lightly browned.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes.

To serve, loosen the edges of the pastry with a knife. Invert onto a platter quickly and carefully. Rearrange any apples that may have fallen out. Serve warm.


Cooking tips

Susan Hermmann Loomis is full of cooking advice that she dispenses liberally during her cooking classes. Some gems:

Hand temperature can negatively affect pastry. Loomis uses a food processor and rolls out the pastry before chilling in the refrigerator.

Take the time to find greens similar to mache, a full-bodied lettuce popular in France that Loomis describes as "a gift from the gods." Bagged lettuce lovers take note: She recommends washing fresh greens seven times for cleanliness and flavor.

Look for aged cheese. Keep cheese at room temperature instead of refrigerating if bought for use the same day. If refrigerated, put in plastic bags with damp paper towels. Bring out about three hours before serving so they may reach room temperature.

Watch the knife. Loomis thinks specialty cheeses are aged in differing shapes for maximum flavor. When partaking, cut wedges or slices following the cheese's natural shape. Cheese is traditionally passed at a French table after the main course, served with a baguette and sometimes a vinaigrette-dressed salad.

[Last modified July 25, 2006, 14:17:41]

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