In pursuit of pan bagnat

IMG_20140818_085046For friends of ours who also lived in the area some years ago, any visit back to Nice involves a search for the perfect pan bagnat, and until this most basic of food cravings is satisfied, no trip is complete.  Inspired by their enthusiasm, we have become fans too and were lucky enough to have double helpings during our last stay. It’s always fun to see how each ban bagnat varies slightly from the next.

You may have already seen a photo of the pan bagnat we found at La Fougasserie in Nice this summer, but our base on this trip was Roquebrune Cap Martin and on my morning strolls down to the popular Boulangerie Rey & Fils I endured several mouthwatering encounters with their freshly-made, stuffed rolls which would stare out at me from behind the counter.  But I was only there for a breakfast baguette and so, morning after morning, I resisted temptation, and if you check out the photo at the top of this post you will see how difficult this was.  Towards the end of the week, however, I found proper, unfilled pan bagnat rolls for sale in Monaco – large ones and this is important. There’s a lot of filling to pile into one of these sandwiches.  With these perfectly designed, beautiful rolls appearing before me unexpectedly, I gave in.  It was time for the DIY pan bagnat.

So what is this irresistible speciality?   Its literal meaning is soaked bread, and years ago it was a salad using the same vegetables and fish we see in today’s ‘sandwich’.  Back then torn pieces of stale bread were thrown into the salad and they would soak up the olive oil, vinegar and the juice from the tomatoes.  Nowadays things have perhaps become more convenient and the aforementioned ‘croutons’ have been replaced by white bread rolls into which the same salad and fish mixture is stuffed.  Essentially pan bagnat is salade niçoise in a roll.  The fundamental fillings include tuna and/or anchovies, sliced tomatoes, black olives, sliced hardboiled eggs, and a variety of other ingredients according to who you believe: radishes, green peppers, spring or regular onions, broad beans, tender baby artichokes, gem lettuce, cucumber and basil all get a mention in someone’s pan bagnat.  The whole mixture is bound together with a generous slug of extra virgin olive oil and a splash of vinegar.

We enjoyed our ‘homemade’ pan bagnat sitting out on the terrace with a view straight across the bay to Monaco, a glass of chilled provençal rosé proving to be a happy pairing.  Back here in the UK, it’s virtually impossible to find bread rolls of the right dimension so I’ve experimented with making my own – see below for details.  Some recipes talk about hollowing out the roll and weighting down the stuffed sandwich for two or three hours.  Do try it if you have the willpower.  I, unfortunately, do not.  Choose your own fillings from the long list already mentioned.  In lieu of pitted black olives which have a tendency to fall out of the roll while you’re eating it, I like to whizz up a handful of them with a little olive oil to make a spread for one side of the roll. And do add a squeeze of lemon juice if you dare.  I like to but traditionalists will tell you it is not the thing.

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IMG_20141115_124742Pan Bagnat Rolls

500g strong bread flour
15g dried yeast
5g salt
50ml olive oil
280ml warm water

Add the liquid to the dried ingredients and mix either in a food mixer with a dough hook or by hand.  Follow mixer instructions or kneed by hand for up to 10 minutes until you have a soft dough that’s not sticky.  Form into a ball, place in a large, oiled bowl and cover with a cloth.  Leave to stand in the kitchen, away from draughts, for an hour or until the dough has at least doubled in size.

When the dough has risen, cut it into four equal parts.  Form into round bread roll shapes.  Flour two baking trays and place two rolls on each – make sure they are well spread out on the tray as they will expand further.  Leave again, covered, for another hour.  After half an hour, pre-heat your oven to 220°C.

After an hour, the rolls should have risen considerably.  Sprinkle them with flour and place them in the oven.  Bake for 12 minutes or until nicely browned on the top.  Cool, assemble and enjoy…..

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Pasta sauce: swiss chard and two cheeses

IMG_20141031_200804 (1) In the city of Nice, swiss chard has long been a kitchen staple and its beautiful, green, sometimes pink-stemmed leaves are known in France as blettes.  Both here and over the border in Liguria, greens of all descriptions are used extensively in tarts, soups, tians and for colouring homemade pasta and gnocchi.  On the tart front, the curiously sweet niçois dish Tourte de Blettes, which features apples, raisins and swiss chard baked in a pastry case with sugar, is a traditional and popular dessert, while the savoury and seasonal Torta Pasqualina (Easter Tart) of Liguria combines swiss chard with ricotta or the local prescinsêua cheese as a base for the tart’s filling.

This latter dish has inspired a few pasta sauce experiments recently and if, like me, you struggle to entice your children to ‘eat their greens’, this recipe could well be for you – mine lapped it up.  I kid you not!  And with some pecorino and a scattering of toasted pine nuts to finish, it’s sophisticated enough for the grown-ups too – think primi piatti and follow it up with a special piece of fish or meat for the second course.  If you can’t get hold of swiss chard, spinach works just as well and the pasta of choice is the cylindrical sort – macaroni, rigatoni or penne would be ideal.

Pasta sauce: swiss chard and two cheeses
Serves four as a starter

200g swiss chard, stalks removed
175g fresh ricotta cheese
10 large basil leaves, finely chopped
50g pecorino romano, finely grated
1 clove garlic, crushed
A pinch of salt
30ml milk
200g macaroni, penne or rigatoni
A handful of toasted pinenuts

Place the swiss chard in a pan with a lid and pour in enough cold water to cover the bottom of the pan.  Put the lid on and heat the greens on a medium heat, stirring from time to time.  After five minutes or so, the greens will have wilted. Drain them in a sieve, and once cooled, squeeze out any remaining liquid.

Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.

Combine the ricotta, basil leaves, garlic, salt and 40g of the pecorino in a bowl then stir in the cooked, drained swiss chard.  Pour in the milk and mix again.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it reserving a little of the cooking water.  Put the pasta back into the saucepan and stir in swiss chard and cheese mixture.  Add a little of the pasta water (perhaps two large spoonfuls) to give a consistency to the sauce that you are happy with.  It should coat the pasta nicely but not be too thick.

Serve the pasta in bowls and top with the remaining pecorino and the toasted pinenuts.  Watch in amazement as people lap up their greens!

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