I've always dreamt of going to Provence and eating pissaladière, an anchovy and caramelized onion pizza, from a street vendor. This recipe for pissaladière from Marie Asselin's French Appetizers means I can also have it easily in my own home.
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There’s something to be said for conviviality.
And if you’re like me, you might be saying I wish I had made more of an effort to master it. Alas, here I am, a middle-aged woman with a five-year-old and five cats, neither of which are always conducive to having people over, let alone wearing my Host with the Most hat.
Then there’s Marie Asselin. Let’s call her my merrymaking mentor. The writer behind the award-winning blog Food Nouveau released a new cookbook last month devoted entirely to easy casual entertaining.
It’s called French Appetizers ($28.99, Gibbs Smith) and before anyone thinks Marie is being ironic by putting French in the title of a cookbook aimed at uncomplicated home entertaining, know this: The French dig easygoing get-togethers. The less fuss, the better. So rest assured when taking your casual entertaining cues from them and from Marie.
French Appetizers ultimately honours the French tradition of l’apero, that after-work, pre-dinner get-together when friends slow down over drinks and small plates. Nothing about l’apero is supposed to be difficult. It’s about being together at your kitchen table, on the living room couch, or in the backyard, and just enjoying the company.
Pissaladière from French Appetizers by Marie Asselin.
Consider the food and drink the accessories to these shindigs. They’re important — they complete the event, after all — but they’re not necessarily the star attraction. They simply contribute to the main event, which is the act of gathering.
The 75 recipes Marie offers in French Appetizers confirm how simple it is to host l’apero — short for l’aperitif, those elixirs served before a meal to whet your appetite — and be the queen or king of conviviality. They range from savoury to sweet, and sippable, and many can be pulled together in mere minutes for those more impromptu get-togethers decided upon in the waning moments of the workday. Think dips, spreads, palmiers made with store-bought puff pastry and filled with the tapenade in your fridge.
Others are more involved for when you have a bit more time to put on a more hearty and thoughtful spread, like baked croque monsieur fingers, pear and blue cheese savoury galette or the fresh herb pissaladière (leave lots of time to caramelize the onions for this one but it’s worth it).
As someone who struggles with both spontaneity and planning, I appreciate that there are recipes in this book that can be made ahead, say on a slow Sunday, to have on hand in case the opportunity arises through the week to come together for l’apero. Marie offers up five different fruit and flower syrup recipes that are content to hang out in the back of your fridge until there is an opportunity for l’apero. Each one can be used in the book’s easy cocktail how-to’s that will make you look like a decorous mixologist.
Tapenades are other make-aheads that store for long periods in airtight jars. Those and a couple of crackers, or a date with puff pastry for palmiers, and you’re laughing, as you should be at l’apero.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind when planning an stress-free l’apero:
Keep the setting simple
This isn’t a birthday party. It’s not even a dinner party, though it could morph into that. You don’t need to decorate or even break out your best linens. The key is to keep it casual so if your plates don’t match, pshaw! No one is judging. Just make sure you do have enough dishes and glasses to accommodate. Leave paper napkins in a pile for people to grab as they load up, and remember, wooden cutting boards are your friends. Crackers, palmiers, tapenades, fish rillettes, and savoury sablés will look sharp when spread out on one.
Light alcohol is best
Keep the drink offerings to sips that will take the edge off the workday but still keep guests in shape to drive home for dinner afterward. Think kir, a light rosé or chablis, a few beers or ciders, and an easy mix combining your favourite spirit with some sparkling water and one of those fruit and flower syrups from Marie’s book that you quite smartly made ahead.
Ask guests to lend a hand
Maybe all you have to offer for l’apero is the space and some hummus and crackers. It’s no biggie asking guests to contribute a food or drink offering, like a potluck. As Marie writes “It’s fun to see what everyone chooses to bring.” If you’re the friend bringing something, though, think like the French and stop at a specialty or dedicated shop, such as a bakery or deli, for your contribution. As the host, asking for help can extend to set-up and clean-up, too.
As for the guests
Keeping it to a small handful of people keeps l’apero intimate and manageable. It’s about connection not big crowds. L’apero can be great for families — if you have kids, invite your guests to bring theirs — because it doesn’t stretch late into night, which means guests leave right around bedtime.
Buy French Appetizers by Marie Asselin. There’s so much hosting goodness in this book. The writing is focused, free of navel-gazing recipe headnotes or long essays to keep you on task. Those books are wonderful to read but when you have guests coming for l’apero, you need to keep your eye on the prize: conviviality.a Rafflecopter giveaway
I've always dreamed of going to Provence and eating pissaladière while sightseeing. This recipe will tide me over until then. Rather than anchovy fillets, Marie uses anchoïade, an anchovy paste, and spreads that over the pissaladière. It gives the same salty, umami bite without putting people off because of its appearance, she says. I used koroneiki olives instead of Niçoise because that's what I had on hand and they worked wonderfully.
Recipe from French Appetizers by Marie Asselin. Reprinted with permission from Gibbs Smith.
For the dough:
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 1/4 cups warm water (about 115°F/46°C
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
For the anchoïade:
- 3.5 ounces oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon capers
- 1 clove garlic
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the toppings:
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 pounds red onions, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 batch anchoïade
- 1/2 cup fresh herb leaves (a combination of oregano, marjoram, flat-leaf parsley, thyme) See note
For the dough:
Stand mixer method:
Using the dough hook attachment, mix the yeast, sugar, and water together. Let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Mix in the olive oil and salt. Add half the flour and mix just to combine. Add the remaining flour and knead at medium-slow speed for 6 to 8 minutes, stopping the mixer from time to time to scrape down the hook and the bowl.
If the dough is very sticky and keeps creeping up the hook, add a bit of flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough stops sticking. You shouldn’t need to add more than 1/4 cup additional flour.) By the end of the kneading process, dough should come together in a ball and feel smooth to the tough. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let set in a warm, non-drafty place until doubled in size, about 1.5 hours.
In a large bowl, stir together the yeast, sugar, and water. Let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the olive oil and salt; add the flour and mix until the ingredients come together in a craggy ball of dough. Transfer to a lightly floured surface. Knead 8 to 10 minutes until dough feels smooth. If dough is very sticky, add a bit of flour, 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough stops sticking. You shouldn’t need to add more than 1/4 cup additional flour. Transfer to lightly oiled bowl, cover with last wrap, and let set in a warm, non-drafty place until doubled in size, about 1.5 hours
Generously grease a 13x18-inch baking sheet (half sheet pan) with oil. Transfer the dough onto the sheet. Using your fingers, gently press the dough into the sheet, stretching it until it completely covers the baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour more.
For the anchoïade:
In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients. Pulse until the texture resembles a coarse pesto. Add more oil if needed. Alternatively, you can finely chop the ingredients, and combine them with a mortar and pestle. Store in an airtight jar in fridge for up to two weeks.
For the Topping:
While the dough rises, melt the olive oil and butter in a large pot set over medium heat.
Add the onions and sprinkle with salt and pepper; stir to coat the onions with oil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions are very soft and starting to caramelize, about 25 minutes (see note).
Uncover and cook 2 to 3 minutes more to evaporate leftover liquid. Transfer to a bowl to cool.
Preheat the oven to 500°F/260°F
Uncover the dough. Create indentations all over by pressing the tip of your fingers into the dough. Brush the whole surface (right up to the edges) with the anchoïade.
Scatter the onions over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border all around.
Bake until dough is golden brown around the edges, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes.
Scatter with herbs and olives, drizzle with oil and cut into squares. Serve immediately.
For the herbs, I used a combination of parsley, basil and taragon.
The recipe gives a time of 25 minutes to caramelize the onions. Mine took closer to 1.5 hours. It could have been the size of the pan I was using and the moisture content of the onions but leave a good 45 minutes at least for this process.