A picnic with Alain

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Franklin CANYON PARK, a sprawling wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains high over Beverly Hills, is one of L.A.'s best-kept secrets — a place to hike, to read in the shade, to relax — a place, perchance, to picnic.

A Mercedes SUV pulls up at road's end next to an open field framed by lazy sycamores and California live oaks. Out jumps Alain Giraud, L.A.'s leading French chef (and until recently the chef at Bastide), followed by his wife, Catherine. They start unloading, lifting tables, coolers, ice buckets, cartons of plates and silverware over the fence. Baskets of food, piles of table linens, throw pillows, bunches of sunflowers and lavender. Hats, more tables, long baguettes, more baskets of food and a couple of big canvas folding chairs.

"Pour les grand-mères!" says Catherine — for the grandmothers! "We never travel light." No, indeed — at least not when they picnic. For picnicking is something like a religion to the Giraud family.

Not surprisingly, 45-year-old Alain Giraud has very particular ideas about the way a picnic should be. The food must be set up on tables, as a buffet, and then to eat it, you must sit on blankets on the grass. "It's a hybrid," he says, "a picnic-buffet. It's to be outside and be in a place where the kids can run and play and bring the dog." In the Girauds' case, that would be Olivia, a bouncy English sheepdog. If it weren't for the headband keeping Giraud's thick, shaggy, prematurely silver hair out of his eyes, they'd look suspiciously similar.

And the food? "The essence of the picnic is to be simple," Giraud philosophizes. "I think a good cheese is important. Good sandwich, and voilà. Good company, a good day, a good river." Well, eighty-six the river. "You're outside, you're cool, you're having some food and boom — where's the foie gras?"

In the end, it's that "where's the foie gras?" moment that trumps simplicity.

Giraud has put together this particular picnic in honor of Bastille Day, the 14th of July. If it seems he has gone over the top with his six-course menu, believe it or not, to him this is simple. Each component is brilliant picnic food. Marinated Cavaillon melon balls served in their rind. A sandwich that's like a niçoise salad in a roll and that actually improves by sitting overnight. Tomato-glazed veal paupiettes that are marvelous served cold. A tart that's gorgeous yet sturdy enough to transport.

Preparations started the morning before, when Giraud shopped for food at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, filling his baskets with baby fennel, artichokes, radishes, melons, zucchini, tomatoes, goat cheese from Redwood Farm.

As the rest of the family finishes lunch in the garden of the Girauds' Pico-Fairfax area home — a 1920s Spanish house — Giraud goes to work in the kitchen. He's wearing baggy shorts; his feet are bare.

Catherine comes inside, a worried look on her face, holding a plastic container.

"Alain, I thought this was potato purée," she says in French, "and I put it in the microwave."

Alain's eyes widen, and he looks as though he might explode. "My frangipane!" he cries, taking it and peering inside. "How long did you zap it?"

"I don't know — not too long."

He had prepared it the night before so he'd have it ready to use in the fig tart. After a stream of invective to which Catherine seems immune, Alain calms down. "No problem," he says, "I'll do it again." Catherine slinks back outside. Alain continues examining the frangipane. Finally, he shrugs and turns his attention to the holiday at hand.

In France, he tells me, Bastille Day is not exactly a picnic op. "They just wheel a bar into the square," he says. "Every village has a portable bar. And they start drinking. It's not related to food. Zero. Nothing."

OK, what happened on Bastille Day? "They attacked the Bastille. And they cut a lot of heads. So I thought alouettes sans tête. It's a traditional Provençal dish, but it's also a visual joke: veal paupiettes stuffed with sausage and mushrooms; they look a bit like small birds, but without heads.

"When I was a kid, I was all the time intrigued," he explains. "Is it a bird? It doesn't have a head?" Though he's never made the dish before, it occurred to him that it would be a fun thing to serve on Bastille Day. "It's simmered in vin blanc," he says, "but we'll use Champagne. And tomato. And of course we'll have to taste the Champagne."

But first, he prepares the melons, which he bought from Weiser Family Farms, best-known for its fingerling potatoes. The Cavaillons, which are treasured in France for their sweet, cantaloupe-colored flesh, are each about the size of a grapefruit, and perfectly ripe; at $1 apiece, they're also a bargain.

Traditionally they're served cut in half, the depression filled with either Port or some version of Muscat, a sweet white aperitif or dessert wine. Giraud uses a melon baller to scoop out the flesh, then he marinates the balls in Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois — pouring from a bottle he carried from France on his last visit. He then replaces the balls back in the melons. "Basically," says Giraud, "that's how you have alcohol at the picnic." For the kids, he sprinkles the melon balls only with sugar. He wraps them in plastic film and stashes them in the fridge.

Then the paupiettes. He sautés shallots and diced criminis in a cast-iron skillet ("the best thing made in America"), then adds garlic and parsley. After it cools, he scrapes raw sausage into a bowl, adds the mushrooms and some thyme.

He pulls out his industrial-sized roll of plastic film — Giraud is a real plastic film fan. He places a scaloppine between two sheets of it and pounds the veal thin using the bottom of a heavy pot. After he works his way through them, he's ready for some help. He spoons some sausage filling onto a scaloppine, folds both sides in, then rolls it up. Next he ties it up, using a tricky chef knot. Can I handle that? I think so. Amazing how perfectionistic a chef can be about, well, picnic food.

Same with the construction of the pan-bagnats. These are juicy sandwiches you make ahead of time, then wrap tightly in plastic so the juices permeate the bread — pan-bagnat means pain mouillé — "soaked bread" in Niçois dialect. Giraud remembers eating these growing up. "The trucks in St. Tropez by the beach sell pan-bagnats," he says. "It's very typical of the south." For the bread, Giraud settled on focaccia rolls from Il Fornaio. "They're soft," he says, pinching them lightly between his fingers, "but not too soft."

Meanwhile, the paupiettes are simmering. After browning them, he deglazed the pan with the Champagne, then added strained tomatoes. The chef takes a moment to ponder where he'll set up his sandwich assembly line, then clears a spot. He gathers the pan-bagnat ingredients.

For some reason, he trusts me to slice the rolls in half, but he can't help stealing a glance to see whether I'm doing it correctly. This is just a chef being a chef. Giraud, in fact, enjoys the reputation of being a chef whom cooks love to work with. While I slice, he carves an artichoke down to the crown, which he slices paper-thin on a plastic mandoline.

He makes a charming little salad of the shaved artichokes and fennel, dressed with lemon juice, fleur de sel and black pepper. Shaved spring onions and radishes make another little salad. Then the quail eggs go in to boil (it's fine to use regular eggs).

Giraud slices ripe tomatoes. "I don't want to buy the heirlooms," he says, "they don't have too much juice." Everything's ready for assembly: tapenade from Trader Joe's, $14 Italian tuna packed in olive oil. Tapenade is spread on the tops of the buns; his best olive oil gets drizzled on the bottom. He layers tomato slices, then sprinkles fleur de sel, "for the juice." Then the artichoke salad, tuna, anchovies, radish-onion salad, quail egg halves and a drizzle of oil from the tuna. He places the top of the roll on top. "Schmuga!" shouts Giraud, pushing it down.

Wrapping these is an art in itself; Giraud demonstrates. The sandwich goes in the center of a length of plastic film. Roll the thing up — tightly. Holding by the excess plastic on each side, twirl tightly until the ends are like ropes. Wrap the ends around either side, and then wrap tightly in aluminum foil.

The fig tart, of course, is still at issue. Giraud makes a new frangipane, beating together butter, sugar and eggs, then adding almond meal and flour. He thinks he can rescue some of the microwaved first effort. He spoons a little into the mixer bowl, peers in, tastes. "If I were the pastry chef, I'd be dead!"

But no harm is done. After wrestling with a very soft dough for the crust (the big roll of plastic film again saves the day, since he can roll it out between large sheets) he halves the figs, then decides it'll be prettier if he quarters them. "I'm king of the figs," he says.


Your picnic is served Next day, at the picnic, the spread is magnificent, very Provençal. The food is arranged on a table covered with a dappled green cloth; the cheese is displayed on the perfect straw tray. And no paper plates for this family: A meal this wonderful deserves ceramic dishes in shades of mustard and olive green and stainless flatware rolled up in cloth napkins.

The Girauds' two children — 13-year-old Camille and Antonin, who will be 12 in a few days — and friends excitedly help themselves.

Alain uses an outsized pocket knife to carve the saucisson Catherine recently smuggled from Lyon. Everyone loves the Cavaillons, even as we wonder, for an uncomfortable minute, whether the kids got the ones without the alcohol. Alain surreptitiously fills our glasses with more of the Muscat. The alouettes are a smash, the pan-bagnat juicy and wonderful. The kids drink sparkling pink lemonade; we drink rosé — who's to know? And anyway, who can appreciate cheese without wine?

Then Giraud slices the beautiful fig tart. We pick it up and eat it with our hands. The fabulous frangipane melts into the almondy crust. The figs — the first black missions of the season — are bursting with flavor. It's a spectacular finish: Giraud really is the king of the figs.

Vive la France!

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The menu

Red and orange cherry tomatoes

Saucisson de Lyon Pistachios

Cavaillon melon marinated with Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois

Pan-bagnat

Alouettes sans tête

Zucchini and Parmesan cake

Redwood Farm goat cheese

Black mission fig and almond tart

*

Alouettes sans tête

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes plus chilling time

Servings: 8

Note: From Alain Giraud. Giraud uses Pomi brand strained tomatoes for his tomato sauce. You will need thin kitchen string to tie the veal bundles. Select veal scaloppine that are as uniformly rectangular as possible.

1 tablespoon butter

1 shallot, diced

6 ounces cremini mushrooms, stems trimmed, chopped

2 garlic cloves peeled, crushed

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

6 ounces pork sausage, bulk, or skins removed

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

8 veal scaloppine (about 2 ounces each)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup thinly sliced small carrots

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups tomato sauce

1 bouquet garni (1 thyme sprig and 1 bay leaf wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with string)

1. In an 8-inch skillet over low heat, melt the butter, then sauté the diced shallot until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook 2 to 3 minutes until dry and nicely caramelized. Add the garlic and the parsley and cook for an additional minute. Spoon the mixture into a bowl and let cool.

2. Crumble the sausage into small pieces and stir it into the mushroom mixture. Season with one-fourth teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon pepper and the thyme.

3. Place each piece of veal between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and, using a mallet or the bottom of a heavy pan, pound until very thin. Be careful not to break up the meat.

4. Season the veal with salt and pepper. Place a piece of veal vertically in front of you. On the side closest to you, place one heaping tablespoon of filling. Roll the end over the filling, then fold both long sides in as if to make a burrito, then roll it up to make a paupiette. To tie, place the rolled paupiette facing you vertically and center a piece of kitchen string around the back. Bring the ends toward you and tie a loose knot in front, then loop the string over itself again. Pull tight, then make a double knot. Rotate the paupiette so the knotted side is away from you and bring both strings toward you so they are taut. Tie in front in the same manner, then trim the ends. Cut three 10-inch pieces of string and tie them around the middle of the roll, spacing evenly and using the same knots. Trim the ends. Roll and tie the remaining paupiettes using the same technique.

5. Wipe the same skillet clean and heat the olive oil on medium high heat. Brown the paupiettes on all sides, about 8 minutes. Remove them to a plate, add the carrots to the pan and brown.

6. Remove the pan from the heat and add the white wine. Put the pan back on high heat and deglaze the pan by scraping up the brown bits on the bottom. Cook to reduce the wine slightly, then add the paupiettes, tomato sauce and bouquet garni. If the liquid does not totally cover the paupiettes, add a little water. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer covered for 30 minutes.

7. Remove the paupiettes to a shallow dish. Cook the cooking liquid until it is reduced to about one-half cup. Remove the string from the paupiettes. Pour the sauce over the paupiettes and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature.


Each serving: 188 calories; 13 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 11 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 46 mg. cholesterol; 495 mg. sodium. *

Fig and almond tart

Total time: 1 hour, 50 minutes plus overnight refrigeration

Servings: 10 to 12

Note: From Alain Giraud. The dough is delicate and somewhat difficult to handle, but well worth the effort. It's easiest to roll it out between industrial-sized sheets of plastic wrap (available at Smart N' Final). The quality of the butter is important: Giraud recommends Plugra, available at Trader Joe's. If the figs aren't very ripe and sweet, sprinkle them with brown sugar.

Sugar dough

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons blanched almond meal

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3 1/2 cups cake flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1. Cream the butter in a electric mixer with the paddle attachment at medium speed. Add the sugar and scrape down the sides. Add the eggs and beat on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute.

2. Add the almond meal and vanilla extract. Beat at low speed; add the flour and baking powder and continue to mix at low speed just until well combined. Do not overwork.

3. Place the dough on a large piece of plastic wrap and form into a rectangle 2 inches thick. Seal in plastic wrap, then cover with foil. Refrigerate overnight.

Frangipane

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour

1 cup blanched almond meal

1. Cream the butter in an electric mixer using the paddle attachment at medium speed. Add the sugar and eggs, scraping down the sides of the bowl, and beat on medium speed about 1 minute.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour and almond meal; add to the butter, egg and sugar mixture while mixing at low speed. Mix until well combined, about 1 minute. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to use.

Assembly

Sugar dough

Frangipane

16 to 20 Black Mission or other fresh figs

2 tablespoons apricot jam

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted

1. Lightly butter a (12-inch) tart mold (1-inch deep) with a removable bottom. Place the sugar dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper. Working quickly because the dough will be soft, roll the dough gently to a three-eighths-inch thickness. The circle will be about 15 inches round. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to firm up the dough.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap or parchment from the top of dough. Turn the dough over and place it in the tart mold. Gently remove the second piece of plastic wrap. Press into the sides and bottom and remove excess dough from the rim. With a fork, prick the dough. Place a double sheet of plastic wrap in the tart shell and add dried beans or baking weights. Bake for 15 minutes.

3. Remove the beans and plastic wrap and bake the tart shell until it's golden brown, an additional 20 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Spoon the frangipane into the shell and spread evenly with an offset spatula. Bake until the frangipane is set, about 15 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes.

4. Increase the oven heat to 400 degrees. Remove the fig stems and quarter the figs vertically. Starting on the outer edge of the tart, place the fig quarters with the pointed ends facing out and the skin sides down. Continue to form concentric circles with the fig quarters. For the smaller circles in the center, point the ends up to look like a flower. Bake for 15 minutes, then cool for 15 minutes.

5. Place the apricot jam and a teaspoon of water in a small saucepan. Heat on low heat until the mixture is spreadable. With a pastry brush, delicately brush all of the figs with the glaze.

6. Before serving, remove the tart from the pan and sprinkle the sliced almonds over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Each serving: 683 calories; 10 grams protein; 88 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 34 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 116 mg. cholesterol; 84 mg. sodium. *

Pan-bagnat

Total time: 30 minutes plus refrigeration time

Servings: 8

Note: From Alain Giraud. The bagnat must be prepared at least 4 hours before serving or, even better, the day before. Quail eggs are available at Asian markets. Breakfast radishes and spring onions are found at farmers markets. Regular radishes may be substituted for breakfast radishes; sweet onions, such as Maui, may be substituted for spring onions.

1/4small fennel bulb (about 1/2 cup sliced)

1 large artichoke

8 breakfast radishes

4 small spring onions

1 tablespoon fleur de sel, divided

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice, divided

8 quail eggs

1 teaspoon vinegar

4 tomatoes, very ripe

8 medium (4- to 5-inch) focaccia rolls

1 garlic clove

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup black olive tapenade

12ounces Italian tuna in olive oil, gently broken into pieces

8 small anchovy fillets cured in olive oil

8 baby romaine lettuce leaves (4 to 5 inches long)

1. Clean the fennel and slice it as thinly as possible (use a mandoline if you have one). Trim the artichoke down to the heart; slice it like the fennel. Slice the radishes and the white part of the green onions very thin.

2. In a small bowl combine the sliced fennel and artichoke, sprinkle some fleur de sel (about one-half teaspoon) and a touch of black pepper over them and add a tablespoon of lemon juice. Combine well and reserve. In another small bowl, combine the sliced radishes and onions, sprinkle with one-half teaspoon fleur de sel, a touch of pepper and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Reserve.

3. Hard-boil the quail eggs, starting with cold water and a teaspoon of vinegar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes. Stop the cooking with running cold water. Peel, cut them in half and reserve.

4. Slice the tomatoes one-fourth inch thick. Reserve.

5. To assemble, slice the rolls in half horizontally. Rub both sliced sides with the garlic clove and brush with the olive oil. Spread the tapenade evenly on the tops of the rolls.

7. On the bottoms of the rolls, start with a layer of tomato slices, dividing evenly among the rolls. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons fleur de sel. Working in tight layers on each bottom, add the fennel-artichoke mix, the tuna, the quail egg, the radish-onion mixture and one filet of anchovy. Finish with a leaf of baby romaine.

8. Cover the sandwiches with the reserved top halves. Roll the sandwiches very tightly in plastic wrap, then wrap tightly in foil.

9. Store overnight in the refrigerator. Cut in half and serve.


Each sandwich: 485 calories; 22 grams protein; 48 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 93 mg. cholesterol; 1,777 mg. sodium.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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