This month's selection for Cook the Books is Peter Mayle's French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew. It's a series of short pieces on his gastronomic adventures around France and I have to say I was a bit bored by it. I loved his books A Year in Provence and Toujours, Provence so I'd been really looking forward to this one, but I just found it all a bit same-y. He goes somewhere for a festival celebrating a food that people in Britain don't usually eat, discovers it is delicious and that the locals are passionate about it and then he drinks too much. Rinse and repeat.
I wasn't particularly moved to eat any of the things he talked about. I wasn't even particularly moved to visit France and attend any of these festivals myself. I was a bit at a loss. And then I was watching Eating in the Sun on iPlayer and Nadia's challenge was to recreate a meal at Alain Ducasse's restaurant La Bastide de Moustiers. This was what I was looking for! All the countryside they showed in the episode was the Provencal landscape Mayle describes so lovingly in his other books and the care and attention the chefs at La Bastide de Moustiers put into their dishes was exactly what I wanted to convey about French food.
One of the dishes Nadia was challenged to cook was a sort of spelt risotto, with several different squash preparations and black truffles. I thought that tied in nicely with the truffle mass that Mayle attends in French Lessons.
I didn't follow the recipe exactly. For some reason every time I tried to read the recipe I went cross-eyed and got really confused, so I got the ingredients and then pretty much made it up. I softened chopped onion and garlic in some butter and olive oil, then added the pearled spelt and some finely chopped butternut. I added a splash of cava (because it was what I was drinking and I didn't want to open another bottle of white wine) and when it was absorbed I proceeded with hot vegetable stock, as if I was making a risotto. Towards the end of the cooking I stirred through half a jar of sliced truffles. These weren't the brand I have had before and unfortunately they were almost entirely lacking in flavour and aroma. Then I stirred through the shredded flesh of half a baked spaghetti squash and served the risotto topped with caramelly roast slices of butternut, some mustard cress and shaved pecorino pepato.
Aside from the disappointment of the truffles, it was a truly delicious autumn dish. I've never cooked with spelt before and while it didn't give the creamy starchiness that rice gives a risotto, it had a lovely nutty texture and I think it'd be a lot more forgiving of being cooked in advance and reheated. The different flavours and textures of the squash were really lovely. I served it to a largely vegetarian friend and he was either extremely polite or pretty impressed too. I will definitely make this again - but I'll probably skip the truffle and the first squash bit and just add the spaghetti squash at the end with cubes of roasted butternut stirred through.
And now I am saving for a weekend at La Bastide De Moustiers. Maybe 2012.