For a die-hard foodie, France is paradise
Recipes for This Story
Smoked Salmon Bites 
White and Green Asparagus with New Onions 
Mackerel Fillets with Fresh Peas, Radishes, and New Garlic 
Garden Greens with Hazelnut Vinaigrette; Cheeses 
Strawberry Parfait with Fresh Normandy Cream 
I'm excited to be in France for an overdue visit. The weather promotes sidewalk strolling, café relaxing, and fashion noting. And for a die-hard foodie, being here is paradise.
On a Friday night in Paris, I attend a cooking class in the Marais neighborhood with cookbook author Susan Herrmann Loomis, founder of On Rue Tatin cooking school in the Norman town of Louviers.
It's an engaging evening spent with return students and novices eager to learn French techniques, ending with a wonderful meal and an impromptu jazz performance. But it's also an amuse-bouche, a "mouth-teaser" to the intense study of regional French cooking Susan so beautifully teaches. For the full experience, travel to Normandy and visit On Rue Tatin.
There, in the kitchen of her 12th-century home, Susan instructs three- or five-day courses. The house, a former convent, stands in the shadow of the majestic Gothic church Notre Dame de Louviers. Susan and her husband purchased the tumbledown structure when the opportunity to write a cookbook resulted in a move to France. Through the long haul of renovation, they discovered buried tile work, a forgotten wine cellar, and the equally humble and elegant local cuisine.
"On Rue Tatin is a gastro-cultural experience," Susan explains. "You learn about local ingredients and techniques, meet purveyors, and visit markets. Everything we cook is true to the region."
Students gather in the timbered kitchen, anchored on one wall by a stone hearth and on the other by a custom Cometto stove. Gleaming copper pots hang within reach, and a blackboard lists the daily menu. Floor-to-ceiling windows open to a patio and herb garden where, weather permitting (and it often does), informal meals are served. While the kitchen is large and accommodating, classes are kept small to allow hands-on instruction. Students work in pairs to prepare individual courses.
Susan reviews upcoming recipes and includes tastings of essential ingredients--sampling sea salts to determine their best use, gathering in the garden and nibbling fresh herbs, or identifying qualities of different olive oils. The roster of recipes changes as new produce becomes available.
For a spring class, students took advantage of market offerings to prepare a four-course dinner that included the season's first herbs, just-harvested radishes, white and green asparagus, and tiny strawberries. Hazelnut oil, crème fraîche, and edible blossoms run through the menu, giving it consistency of flavor and variety in usage.
Smoked Salmon Bites, a classic combination of smoked salmon, crème fraîche whipped with chive and lemon juice, and herbs snipped straight from the garden, start the meal. White and Green Asparagus with New Onions follows. "White asparagus is one of the best parts of the French spring," Susan notes. It has a candylike flavor that pairs beautifully with the sherry wine vinegar and hazelnut oil dressing.
Dismiss thoughts of the pungent radish used only to color a dinner salad. Sautéing brings out a sweetness that will convince you otherwise. In the main course--Mackerel with Fresh Peas, Radishes, and New Garlic--the vegetables are tossed with soy-lime vinaigrette and placed atop full-flavored mackerel fillets. Coriander seeds and fresh cilantro season the dish.
"Each meal at On Rue Tatin includes a cheese course served along with the salad, comme dans la campagne--as they do in the country," Susan says.
Dessert, Strawberry Parfait with fresh Normandy Cream, is an elegant, easy-to-prepare treat that takes advantage of the first strawberries of the season--small, sweet, and red to the core. Students learn to macerate the strawberries in syrup and to make an orange-scented sorbet with them, then stack everything up with velvety-smooth crème fraîche. Using champagne flutes is a sophisticated way to serve.
It's difficult to leave the charm of Louviers and On Rue Tatin after a week of cooking and eating under Susan's tutelage. But back home and putting new skills into practice, you'll have everyone exclaiming ooh-la-la!
Photography: Stacey Haines
Susan Herrmann Loomis puts a priority on making sure students understand the "why" as well as the "how" when it comes to seasoning.
The splendid Normandy spring provides an abundance of options for class cooking. Herbs from Susan's garden are often used for class recipes.
Cheeses--nutty, grassy Comté from the Jura Mountains and buttery Cantal from the Auvergne--plus a salad refresh the palate prior to the Strawberry Parfait dessert.
The dining room provides a convivial spot for discussing the day's activities with fellow classmates.
Cooking with Copper
Copper beats out other metals for its superior ability to conduct heat rapidly, cool down quickly, and cook at controlled levels of heat. In France, a copper pot is likely to be lined with tin; in the U.S., stainless steel. Both are excellent for everyday use. Tin is thinner, will eventually wear out, and the pot will need to be retinned. Mauviel (mauvielusa.com ), producer of copper cookware since 1830, recommends Atlantic Retinning and Metal Refinishing (retinning.com ).
Students learn about differences in aromas, color, and viscosity. "We smell, we feel, we observe," Susan says. "Rubbing the oil in your palm shows its highlights." Like wine, olive oils vary according to growing conditions and region. Generally, the earliest pressings (look for "cold pressed") give the oil a fruitier taste. The deeper the color--ranging from champagne to gold to bright green--the more intense the olive flavor.
Smoked Salmon Bites
- 1/2 cup purchased crème fraîche
- 1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- 1 small bunch fresh chives
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounces lox-style smoked salmon, cut into 1-inch-wide strips
- Fresh herbs, for garnish
In medium bowl, whisk crème fraîche with lemon juice until soft peaks form. Mince all but 12 chive tips. Fold minced chives into crème fraîche. Season with black pepper to taste. Place 1 teaspoon cream mixture on end of strip of smoked salmon, add chive tip, and quickly roll salmon around cream. Set roll on end, cream showing, on serving plate. Repeat with remaining salmon strips and cream. Garnish plate with fresh herbs. Serve at once or cover and chill for several hours. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
White and Green Asparagus with New Onions
White asparagus is simply green asparagus grown underground to prevent photosynthesis. It is usually thicker and smoother than the green stalks. When purchasing, look for firm, pale ivory stalks with tight tips. Cooking time may vary according to thickness; when steaming, choose a couple of spears to use as "testers" for doneness.
- 2 pounds white and/or green asparagus, trimmed, and, if using white, peeled
- 4 spring onions, trimmed, cut in half, and very thinly sliced, or 8 scallions, sliced
- 2 teaspoons sherry wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil
- Fleur de Sel (sea salt)
- 1 tablespoon flower blossoms, such as rosemary or chive
Bring water to boil in bottom half of steamer over medium-high heat. Place white asparagus in steamer; cover and cook until tender but not mushy, checking stalks occasionally to be sure they are cooking evenly, 11 to 20 minutes. Remove asparagus from steamer; transfer to clean tea towel. Add green asparagus to steamer; cook until crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from steamer to clean tea towel.
In small bowl combine onions and vinegar. Whisk in oils in fine stream until thoroughly combined.
Transfer asparagus to serving platter. Drizzle with dressing. Season with fleur de sel. Sprinkle flower blossoms over asparagus. Serve immediately. Makes 6-8 servings.
Mackerel Fillets with Fresh Peas, Radishes, and New Garlic
Peas, radishes, and spring garlic straight from the farmer's market give this dish its fresh appeal.
- 8 baby carrots with tops, peeled and trimmed (optional)
- 2 pounds fresh peas, shelled (2 cups) or 2 cups frozen peas
- 2 teaspoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons finely shredded lime peel
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground coriander
- 3 tablespoons mild-flavored oil like grapeseed oil
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
- Freshly ground white pepper
- 8 (4- to 6-ounce) mackerel fillets, mahi mahi, swordfish, or tuna steaks
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground white pepper
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves (about 24)
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 bunches fresh radishes, washed, trimmed and thinly sliced (2 cups)
- 3 cloves new garlic, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
- Fresh cilantro leaves and flowers (optional)
Bring large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Prepare a bowl of ice water. If using, add carrots to boiling water; cook 8 to 10 minutes or until tender. Remove from water with slotted spoon; plunge into ice water to stop cooking. Add peas to boiling water; cook 5 minutes or just until bright green and tender. Drain peas; plunge into ice water to cool and stop cooking. Gently drain peas and carrots again and set aside on clean kitchen towel or paper towels.
Preheat oven to 450°F. Line a 15x10x1-inch baking pan with foil; set aside.
In small bowl whisk together lime juice and soy sauce. Add lime peel and coriander; whisk to combine. Whisk in both oils until mixture is emulsified. Whisk 1 to 2 tablespoons cilantro into vinaigrette. Season to taste with white pepper; set aside.
Rinse mackerel fillets, pat dry with paper towels, and cut on bias into three pieces. Place mackerel on prepared baking pan; brush with 2 teaspoons olive oil. Season with 1 teaspoon coriander, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper. Using 1/4 cup cilantro, place a cilantro leaf atop each piece of mackerel. Bake in center of oven 4 to 6 minutes per 1/2-inch thickness of fish or just until mackerel is opaque and flakes when tested with fork.
While mackerel is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in very large skillet. Add radishes and garlic to skillet and cook about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add peas and carrots. Gently cook and stir vegetables 2 minutes until they are heated through. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
To serve, arrange three pieces of fish on each plate. Arrange vegetables on plate. Drizzle vegetables and fish with cilantro vinaigrette. If desired, garnish with cilantro leaf and flowers. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.
Garden Greens with Hazelnut Vinaigrette
Serve this salad after the main course with a selection of favorite cheeses. Susan recommends Jean LeBlanc hazelnut oil, a French oil cold pressed with a stone mill (8 ounces, $26, from amazon.com  or a specialty grocer). Look for edible flowers at your local farmers market or with the fresh herbs at your grocery store.
- 8 cups mixed greens and herbs such as arugula, radicchio, sorrel, and Swiss chard
- 1 shallot, very thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon best-quality red wine vinegar
- Fine sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup hazelnut oil
- Edible flower blossoms for garnish
Rinse greens; dry. Place shallot in large bowl. Add vinegar; whisk in salt and pepper to taste. Slowly whisk in oil until mixture is emulsified. Add greens and herbs; toss until combined. Taste for seasoning. Top with blossoms. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.
Strawberry Parfait with Fresh Normandy Cream
This luscious parfait features a homemade sorbet, berries in syrup and velvety, rich crème fraîche. The sorbet can be made the day before serving.
- 14 ounces very fresh, sweet strawberries, stems removed
- 2-1/2 teaspoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon orange flower water
- 4 tablespoons vanilla sugar
- 2 grinds medium-coarse black pepper
Berries in Syrup:
- 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup best-quality raspberry vinegar
- 10 ounces very fresh, sweet strawberries, stems removed, cut top to bottom into 1/4-inch slices
- 3/4 cup purchased crème fraîche
- 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar
- Fresh mint leaves
In bowl of food processor, combine strawberries, lemon juice, orange flower water, vanilla sugar, and black pepper. Mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined and somewhat foamy. Transfer to non-reactive bowl, cover, and refrigerate at least one hour and up to overnight. When mixture is chilled, transfer to 1 1/2- to 2-quart ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturers instructions. Hold in ice cream maker until ready to serve.
In medium bowl, mix brown sugar and vinegar. Carefully fold sliced strawberries into syrup. Set aside for at least 1 and up to 4 hours, covered, stirring regularly and very carefully so berries marinate evenly.
In another medium bowl, whisk crème fraîche with sugar until it holds soft peaks. Cover; chill until ready to serve.
To serve, spoon equal amounts marinated strawberries into champagne flutes, reserving syrup. Top with spoonful of crème fraîche. Top with equal amounts of sorbet, then top with remaining crème fraîche. Drizzle 2 teaspoons vinegar syrup from berries over top of each parfait; garnish with mint leaves. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.