Do you ever get those days when you have invited a couple of friends to lunch, but you’ve drawn a complete blank about what to eat? You don’t really have time to cook for hours in advance but you want to make an effort. I can assure you even if you don’t get days like this, I do! But when I’m struggling to find something inspirational to cook, I always consider what is in season and go from there. I’ll see what we have in the garden, and what is available at the local market, because using only what is grown locally makes everything so much easier and the produce is so much fresher.
Right now it’s cherry season here in France, and what a bumper year it is too. Every road that I take I see trees burgeoning with fruit, their branches almost scraping the ground as the weight of the cherries pulls them downwards. Here in our garden, our enormous cherry tree is no exception.
It is very tall and so we leave the top half to the birds and with the addition of a few bright and shiny decoys on the lower section, we have found a solution that works well. They respect our bottom half and we let them eat their fill on the upper branches. So long as no one breaks the rules and strays into the other’s territory, we are all happy.
I decided to use cherries as the starting point for my meal. We also have plenty of eggs thanks to our hens and so I thought I would make a classic French dish, a Cherry Clafoutis. As this is quite a filling desert, almost like a flan, I thought a light main course would be appropriate.
A wholesome salad seemed perfect because this is just a light lunch. It could be a girls’ lunch for two or three, or perhaps two couples, the logistics of who it is for really don’t matter – my point is, it should be delicious food, but simple, easy to prepare with just a little thought, nothing that is going to see you chained to the kitchen all morning slaving over a hot stove. This is all about the company and chatting. I’m already picturing some laughter, but also some serious talk too. One thing anyone who comes to France will notice, conversation is extremely varied but most people are up to date with current affairs, they watch the news and read the papers; politics I daresay will get a mention, along with the weather. The food will also be discussed in detail and where the best produce can be purchased.
Another reason to choose a salad is because I want whoever is cooking to enjoy this lunch as much as everyone else. This can be made in advance. I decided to make a sort of variation of a classic Salade Niçoise but without the tuna and using asparagus instead of green beans because asparagus is still in season.
You can really add or take away what you want, but this is a delicious combination:
Asparagus lightly steamed for a few minutes and allowed to cool
Hard boiled eggs
Lardons or bacon gently sautéed in some olive oil and allowed to cool
Half a peeled and chopped apple
A base of mixed salad leaves
A little finely grated Emmental cheese
For the Vinaigrette
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
6 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh herbs (chives, parsley, basil)
salt and pepper
Chop and crush the garlic and then add the salt and pepper. Then add the mustard followed by the vinegar and the olive oil. Finally stir in the herbs.
Pour everything into a screw-top jar and shake vigorously so it’s thoroughly blended.
Make sure you have a crusty French baguette to accompany this and serve with a chilled white wine.
Follow with a simple cheese board, just one variety is fine and at the most two.
The Clafoutis recipe I love and use all the time is one I have adapted from a recipe by Raymond Blanc and if it isn’t cherry season with you then other stoned fruits work just as well; try peaches, plums or apricots.
For the cherries
450g/1lb ripe cherries, stones removed which is the messy part!
3 tbsp sugar
Gently mix the cherries and sugar and leave for an hour or so.
For the batter
20g/¾oz unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
2 free-range eggs
3 tbsp sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
½ tsp vanilla essence
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
7.5 tbsp whole milk
Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease a baking dish with butter and sprinkle with sugar.
For the batter, heat the butter in a small pan until it turns a pale hazelnut colour, do not allow the butter to burn. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla until thick and creamy.
Add the flour, whisk until smooth, then slowly add the milk and melted butter and a pinch of salt.
Mix the cherries and their juice into the batter and pour into the prepared baking dish.
Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes.
To finish, sprinkle with a little sugar and serve warm.
Just to make life even easier, put the clafoutis in the oven just before your guests arrive so you can take it out before you sit down to eat. This will give it time to rest so that when you come to eat dessert it will be neither too hot nor too cold, it should be served just nicely warm!
You see even the timing is all about making life as simple as possible. Bon Appétit !