What springs to mind when you think of Provence? Rolling hills covered in vines and olives, perhaps; or purple fields of wind-riffled lavender; wild horses and prize bulls roaming the marshes of the Camargue; huge pots of daube de boeuf simmering gently over wood fires; market stalls laden with sun-ripened vegetables and flappingly fresh fish…
The setting of Alex Jackson’s culinary homage to Provence, a tiny restaurant called Sardine hidden behind the City Road branch of McDonald’s, rather challenges that traditional idyll. Sardine’s menu, however, which features such quintessentially Provençal delights as aïoli, brandade, olives from Nyons and Gariguette strawberries, conjures up the warm south admirably.
Jackson has a thoroughly Provençal approach to vegetables, too. Much of Provence has poor soil, which suits the olive, the vine, and the wild, scrubby herbs that perfume the air in summer, but vegetables need the fertile alluvial soils (especially those either side of the Rhône) to flourish, and they are treated with reverence. Légumes farcis – stuffed vegetables – is a particularly Provençal way of treating the bounty of spring and summer: born of necessity, as a way of using up scraps of leftover meat from the spit, it has evolved into a dish that is made from scratch, using pork, veal and various seasonings to turn a humble courgette, pepper, tomato or aubergine into the perfect light lunch.
Jackson decided to focus on Provençal cuisine “because I love the food from the Mediterranean, and Provence has had so many influences from all over the region: it almost seems like another part of Italy”.
Pasta is widely used, as is pistou, the local version of pesto, famously enjoyed in soupe au pistou, a kind of Provençal minestrone.
And Jackson’s stuffing for courgettes includes both parmesan and ricotta, as well as fresh basil. “The parmesan adds depth of flavour, the basil gives fragrance, and the ricotta – together with the panade, squeezed-out bread – keeps the mixture light: it shouldn’t be heavy.
“I like a mix of veal and pork, but you can just use pork if you like: beef is too rich and heavy, though. If you can persuade your butcher to mince the pancetta or bacon with the meat, so much the better: otherwise, chop it very finely. There shouldn’t be chunks in the stuffing.
“It’s essentially a very simple recipe: the only tricky bit is having the right quantity of stuffing for your vegetables, which could be peppers, aubergines or tomatoes, as well as courgettes. And smaller vegetables give a better balance between the stuffing and the vegetable itself.”
It is better, he thinks, to err on the side of generosity with the filling. “If there’s any left, you can either freeze it, or roll it into meatballs: gently fry some garlic and chilli with the meatballs, then add a splash of white wine and some passata, and simmer until they’re done.”
A heavy earthenware oven dish works best for baking the stuffed courgettes, but the vital point is to make sure the vegetables fit it snugly, so they bathe in the simmering cream and buttery juices: check them as they cook, and add a little water if they look like drying out. Despite the Provençal predilection for olive oil, Jackson dots butter over the courgettes. “It works much better with the cream, forming a smooth emulsion, which makes a great sauce.”
When cooked, the courgettes need nothing more than a spoonful of the creamy, tarragon-scented sauce, a green salad, and a hunk of crusty bread. And, being a Provençal dish, a chilled bottle of rosé. Naturellement, as they say in Micawber Street, London N1.
Alex Jackson’s stuffed courgettes baked with tarragon and cream
8 small round courgettes, or 4 long courgettes
For the stuffing
20g fresh breadcrumbs, soaked in milk and squeezed out
100g lean veal mince
100g fatty pork mince
30g chicken livers, trimmed and very finely chopped
50g pancetta or unsmoked bacon, minced or very finely chopped
30g ricotta, crumbled
20g parmesan, grated
3g sea salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil, plus a basil leaf per courgette
1 tbsp chopped fresh fennel or chervil
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely sliced lengthways
For the sauce
50ml dry white wine
50ml double cream
6 sprigs fresh tarragon
1. Preheat the oven to 170°C
2. For round courgettes, slice off their tops and reserve; for long courgettes, slice in half length- ways. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds but leave the flesh.
3. Season the hollowed courgettes with salt and drizzle with a little olive oil. Roast on a baking tray until soft (20 to 30 minutes, depending on size). Remove from the oven.
4. Mix all the stuffing ingredients together, then fry a small patty of it to check the seasoning.
5. Turn up the oven to 200°C. Put a basil leaf and a sliver of garlic in the base of each courgette, then fill with the stuffing, taking care not to mound the mixture too high. For round courgettes, replace their lids. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Fit them snugly into a roasting dish, then add the wine and enough water that the courgettes are sitting in at least 1 cm of liquid. Dot courgettes generously with butter and roast for 20 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 160°C. Add the cream and tarragon to the pan, swirling to mix them into the sauce, then return the dish to the oven and cook for another 10 minutes, until the stuffing is cooked through, the courgettes are browned but not collapsing, and the cream sauce is slightly thickened. Serve hot or warm, with the sauce spooned over.