There are not enough superlatives to describe Provence. This French region is breathtakingly beautiful, with mountains very close to the deep blue Mediterranean, lovely little towns on the hillsides, handsome palm trees and lush vegetation. It's so closely tied to vacations and good times that the freeway linking Paris to the beaches of the Cote d'Azur is labeled l'autoroute du soleil (freeway of the sun).
The food harmonizes perfectly with this exciting environment. The cuisine is exuberant, rather than subtle. Instead of using butter and cream and creating delicate dishes as in the rest of France, Provencal cooks prefer the lively and more aggressive flavors of olive oil (often called "the butter of Marseille"), garlic, tomatoes and generous amounts of fresh herbs. Still, strong flavorings are not used at random, but with good taste.
It is not surprising that Provencal cuisine is so popular in California, since there is such similarity of climate and produce. Fruit and vegetables, notably artichokes and olives, are abundant in both California and Provence.
Seafood is of supreme importance on the menus of the Cote d'Azur. As in California, grilling is a favorite cooking technique for fish and is used in Provence much more than in the rest of France. Californians have adopted such Provencal specialties as bouillabaisse, ratatouille and salade nicoise to such an extent that they are featured on many restaurant menus and in books on California cooking.
Here are some recipes from Provence: VEGETABLE SOUP WITH PASTA AND BASIL (Soupe au Pistou) (8 servings)
This favorite Provencal soup is made from a variety of seasonal vegetables. In addition to or instead of some of the vegetables below, it can include green beans, pumpkin, spinach or a small amount of turnip. The vegetables are added so that the most tender ones are put in the pot last and thus retain their character. The pasta cooks directly in the soup and thickens it slightly. Any leftover soup is very good cold.
The "pistou" is stirred into the soup off the heat so that it keeps all its fresh flavor. 1/2 cup dried white beans, such as Great Northern beans 3 quarts water 1/4 cup olive oil 2 medium onions, chopped 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1 leek, cleaned and chopped 3/4 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 2 sprigs fresh thyme 1 bay leaf 5 parsley stems 2 small carrots, peeled and diced 1 large potato, peeled and diced 4 swiss chard leaves, cut in thin strips 2 basil leaves (from the bunch below), cut in thin strips Salt and pepper 4 small zucchini (about 1 pound), cut in cubes 1/3 cup shelled fresh peas (6 ounces unshelled) 1 cup medium noodles Grated parmesan cheese (for serving)
For the pistou: 3 large cloves garlic 1 bunch fresh basil (about 1 ounce), leaves only (2 leaves reserved for soup) 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese 1/3 cup good quality olive oil
Soak the beans overnight in cold water to generously cover; drain thoroughly. Put the beans in a large saucepan with 6 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer uncovered for 1 hour, adding hot water occasionally so beans remain covered. Reserve the beans in 3/4 cup of their liquid.
Heat the olive oil in the large saucepan, add the onions and cook until soft but not brown. Add the garlic and leek and stir briefly. Add the tomatoes and cook over medium heat, stirring, about 5 minutes. Tie together the thyme, bay leaf and parsley stems with string or in cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni and add to the pot. Add the carrots, potato, swiss chard, beans in their reserved liquid, basil leaves, remaining 6 cups water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, 20 minutes. Add the zucchini and simmer about 20 minutes longer or until the vegetables are very tender.
Meanwhile, prepare the pistou: Chop the garlic in a food processor. Add the basil and cheese and pure'e with the garlic until the basil is chopped. Gradually add the olive oil, with the motor running. Scrape down the sides and pure'e again so the mixture is well blended.
After the soup has simmered 40 minutes, add the peas and noodles and simmer about 10 minutes or until just tender. Discard the bouquet garni. Remove from the heat, ladle into a tureen and stir in the pistou. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately. Serve more grated parmesan cheese separately. PROVENCAL GARLIC FEAST (Le Grand Aioli) (6 servings)
Aioli is made with a generous amount of raw garlic, which is balanced by the richness of olive oil and the sharpness of lemon juice. For "Le Grand Aioli" a variety of colorful vegetables and seafood are presented on platters and served with aioli sauce. It is ideal for warm weather entertaining because all the ingredients can be cooked at leisure and served at room temperature. 6 small carrots, peeled and left whole or halved crosswise 6 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered 3 medium artichokes, trimmed 1 pound green beans 1 cauliflower, divided into medium flowerets 1 pound jumbo shrimp, unshelled 2 pounds red snapper fillets 3 hard-cooked eggs, halved or quartered
For the court bouillon: 2 quarts water 1 carrot, sliced 1 onion, sliced 1 sprig fresh thyme or pinch of dried leaf thyme 1 bay leaf 4 peppercorns 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons lemon juice
For the aioli 6 large cloves garlic 2 egg yolks, room temperature 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1 1/2 cups olive oil, room temperature Salt and pepper 2 tablespoons warm water
Cook each vegetable separately. Start the carrots and potatoes in pans of cold salted water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer the potatoes about 20 minutes and the carrots about 25 minutes or until tender. Start the artichokes, green beans and cauliflower in pans of boiling salted water. Cook the artichokes about 45 minutes, the green beans about 10 minutes and the cauliflower about 7 minutes. Drain all the vegetables thoroughly.
To make the court bouillon: Combine all the ingredients except the lemon juice in a saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, over low heat 20 minutes. Strain into a saute' pan or shallow saucepan.
Bring the court bouillion back to a simmer. Add the lemon juice. Add the shrimp, cover and poach over low heat 2 minutes. Remove and keep warm; or let cool to room temperature. Add the fish fillets to the court bouillon and poach about 5 minutes or until just tender.
To make the aioli: Turn on the food processor and drop the garlic through the feed tube so it is chopped by the turning blades. Continue processing until the garlic is very finely chopped. Add the egg yolks, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon oil and a little salt and pepper and process until thoroughly blended. With the motor running, gradually pour in the oil in a fine steam. Transfer to a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Gradually whisk in the warm water to thin the sauce slightly. Taste for seasoning and add more lemon juice if desired.
Serve the vegetables and seafood warm or at room temperature, and the sauce at room temperature. Arrange the vegetables, seafood and eggs in separate piles on a platter or on serving plates. Serve the aioli separately. STUFFED ZUCCHINI WITH CHICKEN AND PARMESAN (Courgettes Farcies a la Provencale) (6 servings) 6 small zucchini (total 1 3/4-2 pounds)
For the stuffing: 6 ounces boneless chicken breasts (about 1 large half-breast), skinned 6 tablespoons uncooked long-grain rice Salt and pepper 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 2 eggs
For the fresh tomato sauce: 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/2 large or 1 small onion, chopped 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped Pinch thyme 1 bay leaf Salt and pepper to taste 1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional) 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf basil (optional)
For the topping: 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or parsley
To make the stuffing: Grind the chicken in a food processor. Cook the rice in 3 cups boiling water, about 14 minutes or until just tender. Drain, rinse under cold running water and drain throrghly. Mix the rice with the ground chicken, grated cheese, chopped garlic, parsely and eggs. Knead briefly by hand to mix thoroughly. Add pepper and taste for seasoning.
To make the sauce: heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onion. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally until soft but not browned. Add the tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft and the mixture is thick and fairly smooth. Discard the bay leaf. Stir in tomato paste if brighter color is desired. Stir in the basil and taste for seasoning. The sauce can be prepared 2 days ahead and kept in the refrigerator. Reheat before serving.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Halve the zucchini lengthwise and use the tip of a vegetable peeler to remove the center containing the seeds, leaving a boat shaped container. Put the zucchini in an oiled, large shallow baking dish. Fill with the stuffing. Sprinkle with the oil and bake 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Spoon the tomato sauce over the zucchini, sprinkle with the parmesan cheese and bake 15 more minutes or until very tender. Sprinkle with basil and serve hot.