Provence takes its food seriously. It’s nearly impossible to find a person there who isn’t growing at least a few herbs in their kitchen and a lemon tree on the balcony, even in the smallest of apartments. On my trip through this beautiful area of France, I had the luxury of a very different experience from my usual two-day sprints through a city – I spent nearly 10 days in Provence in two apartments in Avignon and Saint-Remy-de-Provence living for just a little while as if I were Provencal. And living like I were Provencal means Provencal cooking.
The cuisine in Provence reflects its location in the sunny, windy belt along the Mediterranean. It’s rustic and flavorful, featuring olives, herbs, tomatoes, garlic, and dozens of other delicious ingredients. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it. But thinking about it and actually cooking Provencal food are two very different things. Here are a few of the things that I learned in my attempt to cook.
A stove is not a stove
Before trying to cook in another country, I thought I was a reasonably intelligent person. And then I was faced with a French stove. It had no knobs and no “on” or “off” switch, as best I could tell. What did it have? Circles with lines through them and plus and minus signs. Certainly nothing with which I was familiar.
I stared at it for a good 10 minutes. I pressed things. I Googled. I texted a photo to Lance begging for help. Finally, we (and by “we,” I mean “Lance”) arrived at the conclusion that it was an induction stove and wouldn’t do anything at all until I put the pan on eye. Score one for the Internet.
The markets are miraculous
Markets are my happy place. I fall in love with the colorful fruits and vegetables lining the sun-drenched tables. I swoon over the items I’ve never seen before and wonder if I should try. I try not to act too eager when someone offers me a sample of fresh cheese or recently-pressed oil.
I’ve been to markets all over the world, but mostly just to gawk. It’s a different ballgame when you’re buying something to take home to cook. Not only do you have to decide on the meal, you have to know how much to buy (in grams!), and then successfully ask for it. The potential for mistakes is high, but the reward is great. Provence markets really are the best.
You can make great things with limited amenities
While I’m not big on too many gadgets, my kitchen at home has a few core tools that are key to cooking – good knives, an oven, a variety of pans. My kitchen had the necessities but lacked a few bells and whistles, primarily an oven. Of course just about every Provencal recipe I found (like stuffed zucchini flowers and Provencal tomatoes) required an oven. So I got creative and adapted. Again, I Googled. Score two for the Internet.
Chicken Provencal (adapted from Ina Garten)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/3 cup dry white wine
In a large pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over high heat until sizzling and add the chicken breasts. Lower the heat to medium and cook thoroughly, about 3 minutes per side. Melt the rest of the butter in the pan with the chicken, then add the shallots, garlic, and parsley and saute for 2 more minutes. Add the wine, cook for 1 minute, and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Simple ingredients can be the best
Staying in an apartment for a limited time and with limited supplies, it didn’t make sense to stock up on tons of ingredients I would just have to leave behind. And with the bounty of the market just around the corner from me in Avignon, buying canned, processed, or frozen products seemed practically sacrilegious. I limited my purchase to the items I absolutely needed but bought the best I could find. I left the markets each day with a variety of the freshest, shiniest, tastiest vegetables available, plus baguettes, tapenade, goat cheese, and other delights that made my heart skip a beat. Heaven.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 whole cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
Few sprigs of thyme
1/2 cup flavorful olives, pitted
12 baby artichokes
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved or whole
2 tablespoons chopped herbs for garnish
Fill a large bowl with cold water and the juice of half a lemon. Prepare artichokes by removing tough outer leaves, until pale leaves show, then cut off spiky end about a half inch down from the top. Trim bottoms and cut artichokes in half. Rub with juiced lemon and place in bowl.
Combine oil and garlic in a large skillet and heat over low heat. Once garlic begins to sizzle add olives, herbs, and a pinch of salt.
Drain artichokes and pat dry. Add artichokes to pan cut side down. Raise heat to medium and cook until brown. Once artichokes have browned, add tomatoes and a splash of water and cover pan. Cook until chokes are tender and can be pierced with a fork. Add more water if necessary. Serve on a serving platter and garnish with herbs.
When all else fails, wine
Some of my cooking adventures were a comedy of errors. And I’m still not sure I did the artichokes right. But with a little wine in the recipe, and a little more in your glass, all is right with the world.
Have you ever tried cooking in unfamiliar surroundings? Would you?