It's cold. It's windy. It snowed earlier this week in the morning, though the flakes melted when they hit the city pavements. We might as well be in Chicago, not the supposedly temperate city of Paris. And although a few timid young vegetables are starting to peek out of the market stalls, potatoes and onions are still dominant. What is a cook to do?
Well, if she is lucky and has access to the right winter cheese (in this case, creamy reblochon) she can make a heart-attack inducing casserole of epic proportions: tartiflette. Take your tired onions and sweat them in lots of sweet butter, add deliciously fatty bacon, a little cream and stodgy potatoes, cover them with a cheese that is 50% fat and bake. Heaven. It will temporarily allow you to forget the hail pelting against the window and if your conscience cries out (or is that the wail of clogged arteries begging for mercy?) you can always serve a nice green salad on the side. Lamb's leaf lettuce and belgian endives are in season all winter long and will make a crunchy side dish to assuage your guilt.
Tartiflette is a common dish in less posh cafés and restaurants in Paris. I had always assumed that it was a traditional peasant dish, but in fact can't find anything to support that theory. The dish is not included in the Larousse Gastronomique, so culinarily speaking it simply doesn't exist. And in fact, Wikipedia claims it was "invented and launched only in the 1980s by the Reblochon trade union in an attempt to increase sales of the cheese". So it's basically the Beaujolais Nouveau of the cheese world. But unlike Beaujolais Nouveau, it is very tasty and will not leave you with a nasty headache and acidic stomach the next morning.
1/2 a reblochon cheese
6-8 medium potatoes
3 Tbs crème fraîche (or cream)
200 g lardons or pancetta or streaky bacon
3 Tbs butter
6-8 shallots or 2-3 onions, sliced in thin strips
Optional: 1 tsp fresh thyme and/or a clove of garlic.
Preheat the oven to 180c/350F. Peel the potatoes and start them cooking in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Use 1/2 of a tablespoon of the butter to butter the sides of a small deep baking dish, about 20x15 cm. If you have a clove of garlic and are so inclined, you could rub it on the sides of the pan as well. Melt the rest of the butter in a frying pan and, once it is frothing and bubbling, add the shallots. Cook them over a medium heat until they are limp and starting to brown on the edges, about ten minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and add the lardons. Turn up the heat slightly to brown the meat and release its fat. (Check the potatoes from time to time to see if they are tender - as soon as they are nearly done, remove them from the flame and drain them. They will finish cooking in the oven.) When the bacon element is done, drain them - or if you are a fan of flavour and don't care about those arteries, don't. Stir in the crème fraîche, shallots and thyme (if using). When the potatoes have cooled enough to handle, slice them in thick rounds, removing the peel as you go. Layer half of them in the bottom of the baking dish and cover with half the creamy bacon and onion mixture. Repeat with the remaining potatoes and mixture. Carefully slice the cheese in two thin slabs and place them on top. Don't worry about the fact that you can't cover the top entirely, as the cheese will become gooey and spread as the dish bakes. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes, or until bubbly in the center and just nicely browned on top. Allow to cool (if you can) for ten minutes or so before serving. It's delicious with a green salad and an icy cold glass of white wine.