One of the things I miss these days is getting my hands on cookbooks.
We used to get pounds of advance-copy cookbooks from publishers at the Washington Post office each week, and ripping into envelopes and boxes felt like it was Christmas morning.
Now that we are working from home, we often get links to PDFs of said books. I am grateful to get that, but I do not take e-links to bed with me at night to slowly page through the aspirational recipes and gaze longingly at delicious photos.
One book that arrived just before the pandemic forced us out of the office was “Dinner in French: My Recipes by Way of France” (March 2020, Clarkson Potter) by Melissa Clark, a New York Times food columnist who claims to be fluent in French cooking, if not the language.
She dedicates the book to her parents, who took her clan to France each August, exchanging homes with families there and helping her not only master the cuisine but also start a love affair with that country’s food.
Some cookbooks are functional, even a bit cold. They give you the list of ingredients, clear steps through the process – just the facts. Others, like this one, are good reads, too, transporting you into the author’s kitchen and mind, making you feel confident you could turn out something that looks like that well-styled picture. I’m thinking about the Wine Braised Chicken With Oranges and Olives and that Hazelnut Dacquoise With Coffee-Cardamon Buttercream.
I have sticky notes on those and other recipes, but I am always in search of delicious food that comes together fast, so I stopped early in the book on Clark’s Sweet Pepper and Cheddar Clafoutis. I have made sweet ones before, but never savory. It sounded so simple, and it is. The rich eggy custard bakes atop slightly caramelized vegetables, and sharp white cheddar and Parmesan add a bit of tang.
The dish takes a smidgen longer than I would like for this column, but most of that is oven time, and it is worth the few extra minutes.
I made the clafoutis several times, tweaking her ingredients by subbing in zucchini for a portion of the sweet bell pepper she calls for and ending up with a bit of splatter on the pretty pages that hold the recipe – often a telltale sign that a particular dish is a keeper.
Clark also offers great tips and details in the cookbook to help cooks give the home diner that little something extra. For this clafoutis, she has serving advice: The dish is at its prettiest as soon as it comes out of the oven, puffed and golden: “For the most drama, seat your guests at the table, and rush this out for them to admire. The oohs and aahs are worth the jog from the kitchen to the dinner table.”
Even if it is just the two of you, do it. It’s just lovely.
Sweet Pepper, Zucchini and Cheddar Clafoutis
Adapted from “Dinner in French: My Recipes by Way of France” by Melissa Clark. Clarkson Potter, 2020.
¾ cup whole milk
½ cup (4 ounces) crème fraîche
4 large eggs
¼ cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) coarsely grated sharp white cheddar cheese, divided
2 ounces sliced ham, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium sweet bell peppers (14 ounces), preferably red and yellow, seeded and sliced into ¼-inch wide strips
1 small zucchini (7 ounces), sliced into ¼-inch strips
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup (1 ½ ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh lemon juice, for serving
Crushed red pepper flakes, for serving
Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, creme fraiche, eggs, basil, flour, ½ teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Stir in ¾ cup (3 ounces) of the cheddar and the ham.
In a 9-inch oven-proof skillet over high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and the vegetables acquire golden edges, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Scrape the egg mixture into the skillet and top it with the remaining ¼ cup (1 ounce) cheddar and the Parmesan. (Or, for a more elegant presentation, scrape the vegetables into an 1 ½- to 2-quart casserole dish and add the egg mixture and cheese on top.) Bake for about 25 minutes, until the eggs are set in the middle and puffed at the edges. The internal temperature should be about 160 degrees and the tip of a thin knife inserted should come out clean.
Let the clafoutis cool for several minutes, then sprinkle with a little lemon juice and red pepper flakes before serving.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Storage notes: Refrigerate in an airtight container up to 4 days.
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