Once a month, my husband and I get together with a small group of friends to enjoy a night of casual food and drinks.
A few weeks back it was our turn to play hosts and we elected to serve French fare.
The choice of theme was inspired partly by French wine and cheese-matching, which we had enjoyed at our local specialist deli, and partly a viewing of the hilarious Gallic film Le Chef.
As far as cheeses go, in-your-face Munster from Alsace and creamy Brie de Meaux from Ile de France are two of my favourites.
I'm a great supporter of our New Zealand cheeses but these French delights brought back fond memories of past travels.
If you enjoy cooking and food trends, Le Chef is a must-see. Veteran chef Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Renois) is challenged by his restaurant's CEO, who wants to introduce a younger chef specialising in fashionable molecular gastronomy. The film reminded me of the 1970s' nouvelle cuisine days, initiated by three-star chef Paul Bocuse and colleagues to encourage customers back into restaurants after low-fat diets became popular.
But back to our menu. On my travels in France, I'd procured some snail shells and have served them at several parties, each time with a fresh filling of canned snails topped with lashings of garlic and parsley butter. After devouring the snails, we put the shells in the dishwasher for a thorough clean.
Snails were on the menu again, served with kirs, the traditional French aperitif. We used a dry, not-so-expensive sauvignon blanc with a dash of local cassis from Prenzel. The cassis added a hint of sweetness and a pink glow. Delicious.
A selection from our menu follows. Bon appetit.
FRENCH ONION TART
This recipe can also be cooked as a pizza. Roll out the pastry into a 23cm round. Pinch up the edges to hold the filling. Spread the filling over the top and bake at 190C for about 25 minutes.
Pate brisee (short pastry): 2 cups plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
125g chilled butter, chopped
4-6 tbsp icy water
Filling: 5 onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup each: creme fraiche, cream
1 tsp thyme leaves
Salt and black pepper to taste
To prepare the pastry, place the flour and salt in a food processor. With the motor running, add the butter, briefly mixing until it looks like cornflakes. Alternatively, rub the butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips. Add enough water to combine. Roll into a ball, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight.
Set the oven to 200C. Place a heavy oven tray in the lower section of the oven to heat. This will help cook the pastry base.
Roll the pastry into a round about 10mm thick. Line a 23cm round flan dish with the pastry, pressing gently against the sides. Prick the base in several places with a fork. Cover the pastry with foil and fill with dried rice or dried beans to weigh it down.
Reduce the oven heat to 180C. Bake the flan on the hot oven tray for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue cooking for 10-15 minutes until the pastry is lightly golden.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling: saute the onions in the oil on low heat until tender, stirring often, for about 20 minutes. Do not brown too much.
Combine the creme fraiche and cream well then beat into the eggs. Season. Place the onions in the flan and pour the egg mixture over the top. Bake for about 30 minutes or until set. Serve hot. Serves 8 as finger food or 4 as a light meal.
MUSSELS TOPPED WITH ALMONDS
We managed to procure some small black mussels for this recipe - they're more like the French variety - but green-lipped mussels are also excellent.
Stuffing: 1 clove garlic, crushed
3 tbsp chopped parsley
50g butter, softened
1/2 cup fresh white breadcrumbs
3 tbsp white wine
3/4 cup ground almonds
Salt and pepper to taste
Mussels: 2kg mussels, about36
2 tbsp each: white wine, oliveoil
Combine the garlic, parsley and butter. Soak the breadcrumbs in white wine until soft then squeeze dry. Add to the butter mixture together with the almonds. Mix well.
Scrub the mussels under cold water. Place in a large heavy saucepan. Add the wine and oil. Cover and heat until the shells open. Lift out the mussels as they open. Discard any that don't open.
Remove one half of each shell. Slide a sharp knife under the mussel to dislodge it from the shell. They will be easier to eat. Top with the almond mixture. Cover and chill for up to four hours.
Preheat the oven to 220C. Bake the mussels for about five minutes, until sizzling.
Excellent served as a nibble with drinks or as a light meal. Serves 4 as a light meal or 8 as nibbles.
SUNDRIED TOMATO PALMIERS
270g jar sundried tomatoes
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
2 sheets ready-rolled frozen flaky puff pastry sheets, thawed but chilled
Set the oven to 200C. Line an oven tray with baking paper.
Drain the sundried tomatoes. Rinse under hot water. Pat dry. Place in a food processor with garlic and puree.
Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the cheese on the kitchen bench. Place a sheet of pastry on top, pressing it lightly into the cheese. Spread the pastry with half of the puree. Sprinkle with another 1/4 cup of cheese.
Fold in two opposite sides of the square so they meet in the centre. Fold in the same sides of the pastry again to meet in the centre. Fold one half of the pastry over the other. Cut pastry crosswise into 1cm-thick slices. Repeat with remaining pastry sheet. Place cut-sides down on the lined oven tray. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. Reheat to serve. Makes about 30.
PATE WITH THYME
500g chicken livers
Salt and black pepper
3 rashers streaky bacon
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup red wine
Pinch ground nutmeg
1/4 cup cream
100g butter, melted
Drain the chicken livers. Trim and halve, if necessary. Pat dry. Season with salt and pepper.
Dice the bacon and saute with the onion, garlic and thyme in a frying pan, until just softened.
Add the chicken livers and mix well. Cover loosely and cook for two minutes. Stir well then continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes until the pink in the centre of the livers has almost disappeared. Pour in the red wine. Simmer for two minutes.
Place in a blender and puree until smooth. Pass through a sieve if preferred. Stir in the nutmeg, cream and melted butter. Add more salt and pepper, if required.
Cool. Pack into small ramekins and cover with plastic film or melted butter.
Can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days or tightly covered and frozen for up to three months. Makes about 2 cups.