Down East 2013 ©
French food gets a bad rap. It’s often viewed as pretentious, fussy, and rich. Yet it can, in fact, be simple and rustic — especially when its preparation is a process that is never rushed and its main ingredients are fresh and in season. Lawrence Klang, executive chef at Natalie’s at the Camden Harbor Inn,  led the last cooking class and dinner of the spring season at Cellardoor Vineyard and showed us not only how to cook a simple, leisurely French meal but how to highlight in-season ingredients.
Sixteen guests gathered around the baker’s table to watch Klang prepare a French menu of Tuna Bagna Cauda, Carmelized Onion and Anchovy Pizza, Gazpacho Nicoise, Lamb Duo with Couscous, and Star Anise Ice Cream with Madelines. From start to relaxing finish, no one was disappointed.
The star of the menu was the Gazpacho Nicoise. Most of us have had gazpacho and see it as a perfect way to use tomatoes and the always-prolific zucchini from summer gardens. A blender, fresh ingredients, some herbs and garlic and — voila — we can put a fresh soup on the table in minutes. Klang’s recipe, however, savors the slow route to a classic summer dish and the result was truly exceptional.
Klang's recipe required steaming fresh tomatoes for several hours. The steaming process heightened the flavor and only the juice is extracted and reduced to form the broth. Instead of a mélange of pureed vegetables many might assume in a gazpacho, Klang used bite-size fresh asparagus, olives, and peas. The result was a rich, intensely flavored soup that literally stopped all discussion as the soup was savored.
Tuna was another favorite of the class thanks to the freshness of the fish, seared to perfection, combined with the Caesar dressing-like Bagna Cauda. Klang recalled how the warm dressing is used on sandwiches in France and how it enhances the flavors of the fresh bread. It was hard to dismiss the fondness on his face as he recalled how he fell in love with the simplicity of Bagna Cauda while working in France.
We all have similar food memories, of course. They are linked to people and places and some of those memories were revealed during the cooking class. I studied in England before it became the land of famous and trendy restaurants. After three months I went to Paris for a weekend and my first meal was a simple cheese omelet, fresh bread, and coffee. It’s a meal I remember with intensity and fondness for its simplicity to this day.
Cooking class participants are usually divided into two camps — those who want to know the number of ingredients and measurements with exactitude and those who think about how the recipe can be adapted to personal taste. During the last class of the season, the ice cream recipe became a clear delineator of the two camps. Some looked to see how a simple custard of milk sugar and egg can be modified with fresh fruit, flavorings and even herbs or spices to personalize recipes.
As with the close of each of the dinner classes hosted by Cellardoor, the guests climbed to the loft to share in the meal they helped create. Conversation was lively, the food was excellent, the hint of summer was in the air, and there was enough laughter to raise the barn beams.
When the guests said goodbye I added the evening to my small list of perfect food experiences.