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French on the 4th of July

Bastille Day is rapidly approaching (this Saturday, for those keeping track), and I for one will be celebrating with a bottle of French wine. I’m not throwing a party this year, or even making a meal française , but I do think I will have a reprise of the Pissaladière strips I made last week. The recipe is, of course, from my beloved Gourmet; I made it as well as their uniquely delicious basil lemonade recipe to savor during the long, hot afternoon of Independence Day.

It’s too bad I didn’t take any pictures over my lovely 5-day weekend (I thought I’d left the camera at home, but shockingly — and not for the first time — I did have it in my backpack, yet somehow couldn’t find it. I blame the heat.) because I saw some sights: deer, lakes, the cool, brown Russian River on the way back to Sebastopol on Saturday afternoon, lots of oak trees, peach orchards, and the ubiquitous dry, dusty California summer landscape I so missed when I was living on the East Coast.

But the season is bowling along, as it tends to do; here we are nearly at mid-July, and my thoughts have turned again to la France in all her glory. I’ve said it before, and it’s true: I am shameless. I adore France and all things French. If you make this light pastry, you might, too.

The true Provençal recipe calls for olives but though I fly my Greek flag proudly, I can most often leave olives as take them (accompanied by glass of ouzo, now, that’s another story) — so I’ve omitted them here, and substituted portabello mushrooms. I also eliminated the butter in favor of vegetable oil, and threw in a handful of spinach at the last minute. I made this the night before my bbq and was worried the strips would get soggy during transport up to Sonoma County; they did, a little, but a quick fix in the toaster oven perked them right up.

As we waited for the mini grill to heat, I made a batch of basil lemonade vodka gimlets and we nibbled on a taste française. Despite the lack of butter, the pastry was light and flaky, and the filling was sweet from the caramelized onion. The fresh basil I’d used was a nice tie-in to the basil lemonade, which had a sweet-tart taste all its own. Honestly, I think I could have been happy eating just a plateful of this pastry for my dinner instead of the feast that followed.

[Oh, who am I kidding? I’d have been happy with a plateful and then eaten an entire meal anyway..]

This weekend, I’ll test out how they go paired with a glass of red wine.

[Pissaladière, July 2007]

Pissaladière Strips, adapted, and made vegan, from Gourmet

For filling
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 chopped red bell pepper
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary or basil (I used basil)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 portabello mushroom caps, coarsely chopped
Handful of torn baby spinach leaves

For dough
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup soy milk

Make filling:
Cook onion, bell pepper, mushroom, rosemary or basil, a rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden, about 10 minutes. Add spinach and cook until wilted. Transfer to a bowl to cool.

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle.

Make dough:
Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Blend in the oil with a fork or your fingertips until most of mixture resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea-size) lumps. Add milk and stir with a fork until a shaggy dough forms. Gently knead dough 8 to 10 times with floured hands on a lightly floured surface.

Assemble tarts:
Roll out dough into a 12-inch square (1/4 inch thick) on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Cut into 3 equal strips. Arrange strips 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet and spread with filling, leaving a 1/2-inch border around edges.

Bake until crust is golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a rack using a large metal spatula and cool to warm or room temperature. Cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces.

• Pissaladière strips can be baked 3 hours ahead and kept, uncovered, at room temperature.

Basil Lemonade, from Gourmet

2 cups basil lemon syrup (recipe below)
2 cups cold water
2 cups ice cubes
1 ¼ cups fresh lemon juice

Stir together all ingredients in a large pitcher or bowl. Pour into tall glasses half-filled with ice. For an alcoholic version (which I recommend), add 3/4-cup vodka to the mix before serving.

Makes about 6 drinks.

Basil Lemon Syrup

2 cups water
1 cup granulated sugar
4 (4- by 1-inch) strips lemon zest (I left these out)
2 cups packed fresh basil sprigs

In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, and zest. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, add the basil, stir to combine, and let stand at room temperature, covered, for 1 hour. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and chill until cold, about 1 hour. Strain the syrup through a sieve into an airtight container, pressing hard on and then discarding the solids.

Makes about 3 cups.

Note: Make sure you are not half-asleep when straining the basil from the syrup; if you are in a daze, you may pour most of the liquid down the sink before realizing your mistake, and have to re-do the whole thing. Not that I would know, of course.

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