When I think of spring, I often think of trips taken to Europe. It is such a lovely time of the year to visit. The weather is still a little cool, the countryside is green and the flowers are all in bloom. A favorite destination of mine to visit during spring is Provence, one of the most romanticized areas of France. It has been made famous by the artists that went there for the light and wonderful scenery to paint. Writers and poets have written of the beauty and the way of life to be found in this section of the country.
Warmed by the Mediterranean sun and cooled by the breezes coming from the sea, gardens flourish in this beautiful and sometimes rugged area. The gardens are filled with fruit and olive trees, vegetables and flowers. Goats and sheep wander the hillsides and provide milk that is made into delicious cheese. When butchered and cooked, their meat is delicious from grazing on wild rosemary and thyme.
From three-star Michelin restaurants to small bistros in the countryside, Provence is known for having some of the best food in France. When looking for a restaurant, I love it when I discover a hidden gem in a centuries old stone building in one of the little villages perched high up on a hilltop.
The charming restaurants look like something out of a movie, with worn tile floors, white washed walls, dark wooden beams and simply set tables with fresh flowers or candles.
The restaurant will usually have a few tables outside where you can leisurely sip a glass of wine or pastis and watch a game of boules being played on the square.
Go to any outdoor market being held in a town and you will find fragrant herbs, lemons, garlic, olives, artichokes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, and tomatoes. When strolling among the vendors, I always wish I could own a little stone house with a lovely kitchen where I could prepare a meal from the wonderful ingredients at the market.
Remembering the food markets in the south of France inspired the meal that I prepared.
A Provencal meal with tomatoes, olives, courgettes (zucchini) and spring lamb. The recipes for this meal are for two people and can easily be adapted for the number you are planning to serve.
Tomatoes à la Provencal
- 2 tomatoes
- 2 Tbsp. onion, minced
- 1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 Tbsp. seasoned, dried breadcrumbs
- 3 Tbsp. panko breadcrumbs
- 6 oil cured olives, seeded and chopped
- 2 tsp. capers and a little of their juice
- 1 Tbsp. fresh chopped mint
- 1 tsp. fresh chopped parsley
- 1 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
- 2 Tbsp. feta cheese
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil plus more to drizzle
- 1 tsp. sherry or red wine vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut the top off the tomatoes and reserve. Cut out the hard core and discard. Carefully remove all the pulp and save. Lightly salt the tomato shells and invert on a plate to drain. In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the reserved pulp and any juices from the drained tomatoes and simmer until the juice has reduced. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl along with all the other ingredients. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Stuff each tomato about half way and pack in tightly. Mound the remaining stuffing on top lightly and drizzle with some additional oil. Place in a ovenproof casserole with the tops on the side. Bake for about 5 minutes and remove tops to a plate. Bake the stuffed tomatoes for about 5 minutes more. You want the tomatoes to just start to get soft but keep their shape. The tomatoes are great served warm or a room temperature.
Herb Crusted Rack Of Lamb
Ask your butcher to “French” your rack of lamb and trim off all but the thinnest layer of fat. The fat is what gives lamb it’s stronger taste so remove as much as possible for a milder flavor. Mince 1 or 2 cloves of garlic and mix with some chopped rosemary, thyme, pepper (do not add salt at this time) and enough olive oil to make a loose paste. Rub all over the meaty part of the rack, cover with plastic wrap and let marinate for several hours or preferably overnight. Take the meat out of the refrigerator to warm up for about 30 minutes before cooking. Scrap off the garlic and herbs and season well with salt and pepper. Cut the rack into half. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
In the meantime, prepare the herb crust. Warm 1 clove of minced garlic in 1 Tbsp. of olive oil. This flavors the oil and takes away the raw taste. In a bowl, mix about a 1/4 cup of panko bread crumbs with 1 tsp. each of chopped thyme and rosemary, salt and pepper to taste. Add the garlic and oil and mix until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened.
Heat a small amount of oil in a medium hot skillet until almost smoking. Add the racks and brown on all sides. Remove to a plate until cooled slightly. Rub about 2 Tbsp. of Dijon mustard all over the meat and coat with the crumbs, patting to firm into place.
Place on a baking pan and roast for about 15 to 20 minutes or until an oven thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 130 for medium rare. Add about 5 minutes more for medium. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before cutting into double chops.
I served julienned courgettes (zucchini) sautéed in olive oil, garlic and fresh thyme to complete the meal. If you are having guests and would like to start with an appetizer, tapenade and toasted sliced baguettes, almonds and mixed olives would be very appropriate for a true Provencal meal.