Christmas in Provence

Christmas brought an old friend into town.  I’ve known Magali since she kicked me in the stomach at her 7th birthday party (it was a splendid boot, to her credit) and have always (even when doubled over) been fascinated with her food sophistication.

Magali’s culinary sense comes from ancestral memories in Marseille and Italy.  Her after-school snacks were outlandishly elegant nibbles of pain au chocolat, with scored-peel oranges comme digestif and meals at Magali’s were riotously gastronomic affairs.  In particular, I remember a dinner in graduate school–I was lucky enough to be a guest chez Tante Michelle, whom Magali was visiting in Los Altos, just south of Stanford.  We drove through the rain to an effortless and incredible feast that made Provençal magic (in cast-iron cauldrons) of things like black olives and artichoke hearts.

So when Magali came calling this Christmas, I had but one request: let’s cook whatever it is you French eat for Christmas.

She surprised me by confessing that her mother (the French) is not a creature of the kitchen, and that her father (the Italian) was the illustrious cook and apt pupil, who had zealously absorbed French family cookery during several years spent near the new in-laws in Marseilles.

So we did two beautiful dishes, one from the repertory of each parent.  A one-pot sole meunière in the style of Mr., and a terrific red-and-green tomates Provençales, fried and baked and kissed with pistou, in the style of Mme.’s Christmas family tradition.

The sole: chopped onions are lightly browned with garlic and olive oil in the bottom of a skillet; then quick-cooking floured filets of sole are laid in a single layer over the onions, and flipped once.  At the moment they are done, the heat is cut, lemon juice is squeezed over the pan, and capers dive in.  Delicious.

Les tomates: halve several stemless ripe tomatoes, fry lightly in olive oil on both sides, and arrange in a baking dish.  Kiss the cheeks of each tomato half with pistou (and breadcrumbs, if you wish) and bake at 400F until your glass of wine is low.

Joyeux Noel.

Update: See also this heartwarming essay on a related topic.


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