Some Plays on Lyonnaise

Among my earliest memories was peering over the counter, watching my mom make quick work of dicing an onion. While all the other boys enjoyed spectator sports and rolling around in the dirt, scarcely able to stay still, I found myself more at home in the kitchen, fascinated by the preparation and the transformation of strange ingredients into delicious foods. Of my indulgent mother, I’d ask an endless stream of questions, no doubt trying her patience. What I couldn’t have realized at the time was that this would turn out to be the first prong of an inadvertent but substantial culinary education. By watching my mother, I knew how to handle a knife before having ever touched a knife. I knew how to prep ingredients–at least in a basic sense–before having ever bothered to try. The kitchen, it turns out, would play a tremendous role in my early development and outlook of the world. And this is nothing short of entirely fitting.

Although I’m hesitant to admit it, television too played a large role in my youth. There were other influences, of course: A deep love of science, of literature, of technology, but these interests would also map onto my television habits, mostly in documentary form. The Discovery Channel, in the more demure days before “Shark Week,” was a robust intellectual feast covering topics that spanned the gamut. I’d often organize my week around catching my favorite documentary series, which included everything from physics, to military history, to the culinary arts.

In particular, there was a show called “Great Chefs,” in which a camera crew would set up in the professional kitchen of one of the world’s top rated culinarians and film the painstaking preparation of immaculate cuisines. This was my first exposure to cooking as art and science, rather than the lived tradition I was exposed to through my mother. Another feature of the show was the chefs would always perform their magic under the voice of the same unseen but every watchful narrator, one Mary Lou Conroy. Mary Lou, a reserved but knowing woman with an accent perfectly evoking the New Orleans aristocracy (if only in my mind), would particularly focus on the subtle cooking techniques, precise measurements and the importance of ingredients. When I finally began to cook at age nine or 10 under the guidance of my mom, my process was always narrated by Mary Lou herself, at least in my head.

As with much in fine dining in the 1990s, the United States was focused mostly on classic French cooking. There was so much of a French focus on “Great Chefs,” in fact, that I had even grown rather discerning in my watching tastes. Of particular interest to me was the rare occasion that Lyon would be the focus of a segment. Lyonnaise cuisine was a dream, with its broad influences drawing on seafood, olive oil and fresh produce from Provence, the richness of cream and butter from Alsace and Lorraine and its deep obsession with these ingredients, their nature and subtlety. Watching the chefs work and listening to the richness of Mary Lou’s narration made my heart and mind sing in harmony. Among my favorite Lyonnaise chefs to be featured on the show was the great Jean-Paul Lacombe. (You can still view his old “Great Chefs” segments on Vimeo; here are two of my favorites for your pleasure.)

As I began to cook, mostly my family’s special occasion meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years’ Eve, my initial focus was to duplicate the extraordinary dishes I had seen on television. During these years before Amazon and Whole Foods, my mom and I tirelessly scoured the Chicagoland area for rare and eyebrow raisingly expensive French ingredients. Ingredients which I would, to say the least, do no justice to as an untrained child. Undaunted, I moved on to other things, continuing to read and learn, employing classic French technique in other, less ambitious dishes along the way.

Over the years, I traveled and branched out to more exotic cuisines, ones I’ve thus far covered on this site (such as Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese). But in a flourish of self-indulgence, I’ve decided to return to my roots, so to speak. Below, I present my variations (or plays) on three classic Lyonnaise dishes. Although I likely have nothing original to contribute to the ongoing development of French cuisine, I’ve put my stamp on some classics.

Potatoes Lyonnaise

Classic Potatoes Lyonnaise is beautiful in its simplicity, comprised of just four ingredients: Starchy potatoes, white onions, butter and parsley. The dish is elegant and requires the very freshest and highest quality ingredients because you can distinctly taste each one. The reason it works is that it starts with potatoes and all the ingredients it adds are with the singular purpose of subtly nuancing the potato flavor.

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My play on this dish basically seeks to do the same thing, but with a small twist: I use more flavorful and texturally appealing waxy potatoes. This might seem like an irrelevant change, but it makes all the difference. Instead of four ingredients, I use six: Firm and waxy potatoes (my favorite is the French heirloom variety called belle de fontenay), adult arugula (I prefer an heirloom variety called Esmee with a strong pepperiness but restrained bitterness), real deal French butter, buttery and grassy French olive oil, freshly ground Malbar black pepper and freshly ground nutmeg.

Despite having more ingredients, my version is actually more subtle than the original. Ingredients combine to tag team the potatoes, enhancing them in two ways. The first are the combination of the butter and nutmeg. The two combine to enhance a milky soft flavor in the potatoes and make their waxiness more appealing with added richness. The second is the combination of the arugula, olive oil and black pepper. These stack, one upon the next, to provide a mild bitterness and peppery spice that extends the finish of the potatoes, making them even more satisfying. If you can believe a potato dish as simple as this can be a stunning triumph, you’ve got to try this.

Chopped Steak

Bifteck haché or chopped steak is basically the more refined French take on a hamburger patty. Like so much in French cuisine, everything relies on the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Throughout France, it’s quite common to simply request a butcher to grind and combine their preferred fatty beef cuts together, then mold them into patties. Upon returning home, you can simply season, cook and serve with accompaniments. That’s right, you can actually have cattle so good that you just eat a hamburger patty with some vegetables and frites and be totally happy to be alive.

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Lyon has its own take, combining onions, other aromatics, eggs and butter into the mix to add complexity to the meat as well as enable a more delicate texture. My play on the dish improves on this delicate texture by substituting garlic, thyme and black pepper infused butter for the plain stuff, dropping the onions, drizzling with an a la minute butter-thickened red wine sauce and topping with parsley and garlic chives. For the advanced crowd, you can even grind your own preferred beef cuts; my favorites are equal parts chuck and short rib. The results for your efforts are extraordinary. What may look like a poor man’s hamburger is actually a delicate and nuanced dish that you can’t help but feel extremely posh consuming.

Tripeless Beef Tripe Stew

The truckers of France enjoy a famed Lyonnaise beef tripe stew, a well-known peasant dish that I find to be overrated. Beef tripe, as a matter of clarity, are the inner linings of the first three chambers of a cow’s stomach. These bits would ordinarily be tossed, but for the French working class. If you’ve never handled beef tripe, consider yourself lucky. Its smell and flavor are described as barnyardy, which is the taste of how a lived-in barnyard smells–yes, literally like shit. The stew itself is fairly delicious except for the slightly too deep barnyardiness. As you might guess, my version corrects for this.

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Instead of beef tripe, I use a combination of beef stock, cured anchovies and fresh seafood. The result is a peasant stew with all the character of the original and then some. The intense barnyard flavor is substituted by a more subtle combination of brininess from the anchovies along with meatiness from heavy beef stock. It positively tastes like home.

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The Recipes

Potatoes Lyonnaise

Ingredients – Serves Four
1 kg (15 medium or about 35 oz) belle de fontenay potatoes, cut into 2 cm cubes, skins on
60 g (about 2 cup, loosely packed) arugula, rough chopped
Vegetable oil

30 g (about 2 tbsp) California extra virgin olive oil
15 g (about 1 tbsp) grassy French extra virgin olive oil
25 g (about 1.5 tbsp) high quality sweet butter, softened and divided into thirds

20 black peppercorns, finely ground
1 nutmeg nut
Kosher salt

Substitutions
Any firm, waxy potato such as red potatoes may be substituted for Belle de fontenay potatoes
Any mild and grassy extra virgin olive oil may be substituted for French olive oil

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 225 °C (437 °F). With sufficient vegetable oil, grease a baking sheet. Arrange cubed potatoes on baking sheet so that they are close together but not touching with the skin side facing up when possible. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt, ensuring all potato pieces receive some salt. Drizzle evenly with California olive oil and place in oven. Roast until the edges of the potatoes begin to turn golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
  2. Heat a large, heavy skilled over medium-low heat to 165 °C (329 °F). Melt the butter in the skillet, stirring the butter pieces around the pan. The butter should not start to sizzle more than slightly, but if it does, reduce heat. Sprinkle with three-quarters of the pepper, stirring to integrate. When butter is fully melted, add potatoes and gently coat with the butter mixture.
  3. Increase heat to medium-high and add arugula, gently fold with the potatoes. When leaves just begin to wilt, remove from heat. Sprinkle with remaining pepper and grate fresh nutmeg evenly atop the surface so that it moderately coats the surface and the nutmeg is aromatic. Toss the potatoes so that the spice integrate.
  4. Plate and grate a small amount of additional nutmeg on top. Serve immediately.

Chopped Steak

Ingredients – Serves Four

For Patties
500 g (about 18 oz) freshly ground beef consisting of equal parts by weight of chuck and short rib from a high quality, fully pasture raised cow
1 large hen egg from humanely raised animal. lightly beaten
10 g (about 1 to 2 medium cloves) garlic, finely diced
45 g (about 3 tbsp) high quality sweet butter, softened and divided in half
0.5 g (about 1 tsp) dried thyme
5 black peppercorns, finely ground
50 g (about 2 oz) all-purpose flour, sifted
Vegetable oil
Kosher salt

For Sauce
125 g (about 100 mL or 4 fl oz) dry red wine with low acidity and low tannins such as a young Chinon
150 g (about 100 mL or 4 fl oz) beef stock (see below for procedure)
45 g  (about 3 tbsp) high quality sweet butter, softened and divided into quarters
8 g (about 1 medium cloves) garlic, slivered
2 black peppercorns, finely ground
Kosher salt

For Topping
1 medium sprig parsley, leaves and tender stems only, chopped
2 garlic chives, sliced into thin rings

Substitutions
Any lean ground beef may be substituted for the freshly ground chuck and short rib

Procedure

  1. Heat a large, heavy skilled over medium-low heat to 165 °C (329 °F). Melt 30 grams of the butter in the skillet, stirring the butter pieces around the pan. The butter should not start to sizzle more than slightly, but if it does, reduce heat. Add the diced garlic and cook until garlic is slightly translucent and highly aromatic. At no point should the butter brown or come to a high simmer. Remove from heat and, with a fine mesh strainer, remove garlic. Stir in dried thyme and five peppercorns worth of black pepper. Set aside and allow to cool.
  2. When butter mixture is cool, sprinkle with salt, add egg and gently integrate until the mixture is homogeneous. Gently, fold the mixture with the ground beef.
  3. Form beef into four equal sized, 2 cm thick patties. Form a small dimple in the center of each patty (this will help them retain their shape when cooking). Again, sprinkle the patties with salt on all surfaces then dredge with the flour. Let the patties rest for a few minutes before cooking.
  4. Preheat oven to 100 °C (212 °F). Heat a large, heavy skilled over medium-high heat to 200 °C (392 °F). Add enough vegetable oil to thinly but fully coat the entire surface of the pan. Melt 15 grams of the butter in the skillet, stirring the butter pieces around the pan. Add the patties to the pan so that they are equally spaced and not touching. Sear on each side until well browned, about two minutes per side. When fully browned, remove from skillet and place on a baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Discard any oil remaining in the pan.
  5. Add red wine and garlic to the skillet and reduce over medium heat by about one-half, about three to five minutes. Add stock and reduce the remaining mixture by half, about seven to 10 minutes. Remove garlic. With a flat whisk, melt and integrate the 45 grams of butter into the sauce one quarter at a time. When complete, bring the sauce to a light simmer for about 10 seconds. Season with kosher salt to taste.
  6. Plate beef patties and drizzle with sauce. Sprinkle with remaining pepper and top with parsley and chives. Serve immediately.

Tripeless Beef Tripe Stew

Ingredients – Serves Four

Seafood
500 g (about 18 oz) white, flakey lake fish such as lavaret
500 g (about 15 jumbo or 18 oz) shrimp with balanced brine and sweetness such as rock shrimp

Fresh Aromatics
500 g (about 1 large) Spanish onion, diced
50 g (about 6 to 8 medium cloves) garlic, finely diced
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced into 0.5 cm medallions
2 medium celery ribs, peeled and sliced into 0.5 cm medallions
3 large sprigs fresh parsley, finely sliced

Substantial Vegetables
500 g (about 8 medium or 18 oz) belle de fontenay potatoes, cut into 1 cm cubes, skins on
400 g (18 oz) can of diced plum tomatoes
300 g (about 7 medium or 10 oz) balanced acidity cherry varietal tomato (such as Pink Vernissage), sliced into quarters
15 g (about 1 tbsp) California extra virgin olive oil
Vegetable oil

Herbs and Spices
1 large sprig fresh sage
1 large sprig fresh thyme
1 large sprig fresh basil
2 medium sprigs fresh rosemary
2 green thai chilis, roughly chopped
2 g (about 1 tsp) finely ground espelette pepper
95 g (about 3 oz) high quality cured anchovy fillets in extra virgin olive oil
2 g (about 0.5 tbsp) coriander seeds, finely ground
5 black peppercorns, finely ground

For Sauce
250 g (about 175 mL or 6 fl oz) beef stock (see below for procedure)
250 g (about 200 ml or 7 fl oz) dry vermouth
Kosher salt

Substitutions
Any firm, waxy potato such as red potatoes may be substituted for Belle de fontenay potatoes
Dried or fresh cayenne pepper may be substitute for espelette pepper
Dried herbs may be substitute for each of the fresh herbs

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 225 °C (437 °F). With sufficient vegetable oil, grease a baking sheet. Arrange cubed potatoes on baking sheet so that they are close together but not touching with the skin side facing up when possible. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt, ensuring all potato pieces receive some salt. Drizzle evenly with California olive oil and place in oven. Roast until the edges of the potatoes begin to turn golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
  2. Heat a large, heavy dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat to 200 °C (392 °F). Add the olive oil from the anchovies and ensure oil has fully coated the bottom of the pot. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes. The onions should not brown at all; if browning begins to occur, reduce heat. Add carrots and celery, tossing to integrate. When deeply aromatic, about two minutes, add garlic, chili peppers and anchovy fillets, tossing to integrate. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until anchovy fillets have begun to melt into the oil, about 2 minutes.
  3. Increase to high heat and add dry vermouth, beef stock, plum tomatoes and sprinkle generously with salt, stirring to integrate. Add thyme, one sprig of rosemary, pushing them down into the liquid. Bring to a rolling simmer and add sage and basil, pushing each down into the liquid. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Add additional sprig of rosemary, pushing it down into the liquid. Delicately fold in potatoes and sprinkle with the coriander and black pepper. Add the seafood, delicately covering them with liquid and vegetables. Continue to simmer until the seafood is just cooked through, about five to seven minutes. Remove from heat and discard all of the herb sprigs.
  5. Add two sprigs worth of parsley and the cherry tomatoes, delicately folding them into the stew and taking care not to crush the seafood or tender potatoes. Season with additional kosher salt to taste.
  6. Portion between four bowls and top with remaining parsley and serve immediately.

Beef Bone Stock

Ingredients

500 g assorted beef knuckle bones and beef shanks
1 L filtered water
30 g (about 2 tbsp) dry vermouth
Vegetable oil

Procedure

  1. Thoroughly rinse bones and shanks under hot, running tap water. Set aside. In a large pressure cooker, coat the bottom with sufficient vegetable oil to just cover and heat to approximately 180 °C (356 °F) over low flame. Add shanks and brown on all sides, turning every couple minutes. The shanks should brown slowly and will heat through, beginning the break down of collagen in the meat, tendon and cartilage. When well browned, about 20 minutes, add the knuckle bones and vermouth. Make sure to break up any brown bits at the bottom of the cooker. Seal and cook at high pressure (about 15 pounds per square inch) for about two hours. Carefully relieve pressure and unseal.
  2. If the procedures were done correctly you should have a cloudy, yellow-brown stock with little or no foam and oil floating atop. Skim broth to remove the floating foam or oil. Try to be as thorough as possible when skimming. When complete, first remove large bones and then strain through a fine mesh steel conical strainer, such as a chinois, to remove any remaining solids. (Broth can be prepared in advance and frozen; if you choose to freeze, store in an airtight container for no longer than six months. When ready to use, simply melt the appropriate amount of broth for use.)

Have a question? Ask me anything!

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