- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

For almost 20 years, the world has been wild about Provence, the sunny region along the Mediterranean coast of southern France. I fell in love with it in the late 1960s and early ‘70s when I worked there for three years, first in the town of Baumaniere and then in the nearby principality of Monaco.

Provencal cuisine remains incredibly popular, from salade Nicoise to bouillabaisse. Considering how fresh and flavorful such dishes are, that’s no surprise. I am surprised, however, that few people outside of Provence know its signature sandwich, a perfect casual food for summer: pain bagnat.

Literally “bathed bread” in the local dialect, the name describes how the peasant loaf on which it is based soaks up the flavorful juices of the filling, which features sun-ripened tomatoes and other signature summer vegetables.

Great pain bagnat starts with great bread. In France, they often use a long baguette or round country loaf. You could also make individual servings with sandwich rolls. The most important thing is that the bread be good and crusty, with a firm, dense crumb. I especially like sourdough. You’ll find an assortment of good bread options, both French and Italian in style, in boutique bakeries, ethnic and gourmet delis, and well-stocked supermarkets.

For the filling, good, firm sun-ripened tomatoes are a must. I remove the seeds, so they’ll be less watery. Unlike some recipes instruct, however, I leave the skins on, because peeling requires dipping them in boiling water and then ice water, which can make the flesh soggy. I also include minced onion, fresh basil, black olives, and, of course, olive oil and vinegar, both of which bathe the bread along with the vegetable juices.

Traditional pain bagnat recipes call for you to hollow out the bread slightly, fill it with vegetables and dressing, wrap it tightly, and then refrigerate it overnight to let the flavors mingle. I find the results just a little too “bathed” for my taste. Instead, I toast the bread lightly first and add the filling closer to serving, resulting in a hint of crunchy texture. If you like, you can also present it open-faced, an especially pleasing touch in these carb-trimming times.

Finally, I like to add a little protein. Some Provencal recipes include canned tuna or anchovies, which make the pain bagnat reminiscent of a salade Nicoise. I like to include shrimp, which you can find precooked in many markets. You could also use chunks of rotisserie chicken or slices of leftover grilled steak, pork or lamb. Or, if you can find fresh mozzarella, add some slices or chunks to the vegetable mixture.

However you embellish your pain bagnat, one bite will magically transport you to the south of France.

PAIN BAGNAT WITH SHRIMP

Serves 4

1 large French baguette or 4 individual 6-inch French rolls

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

8 jumbo cooked shrimp, about 1/2 pound total weight, peeled and deveined

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

1 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 large vine-ripened tomatoes, cored, halved, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 hardboiled egg, peeled and cut into 8 wedges

1/4 cup Nicoise olives, pitted and chopped (about 30 olives)

8 basil leaves, coarsely chopped

Preheat the broiler.

If using a baguette, cut it with a bread knife into 4 equal pieces. Cut each piece of baguette, or each French roll, lengthwise in half. With your fingers, scoop out some of the soft part of the bread to make a hollow space for the filling.

Lightly brush the cut, hollowed sides of each piece of bread with a little of the olive oil. Place the bread cut side up on a baking sheet and toast under the broiler until lightly browned.

Cut each shrimp into 4 equal pieces and set aside.

In a nonreactive mixing bowl, combine the remaining olive oil, onion, balsamic vinegar, anchovies, sugar and a little salt and pepper. Stir well. Taste and adjust seasonings with a little more salt and pepper.

Add to the bowl the shrimp pieces, tomatoes, eggs, olives and basil. Toss gently and let the flavors mingle at room temperature for about 10 minutes.

To assemble, place the bottom half of each sandwich on a serving plate. Divide the filling evenly among the sandwiches. Drizzle with olive oil and place the other toasted bread half on top.

Leave the sandwiches to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving, so the bread will soak up some of the juices.

• (Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

2004 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC.

DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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