A promise of Provence blends garlic, olives, tomatoes

August 24, 1994|By Bev Bennett | Bev Bennett,Los Angeles Times Service

The first fact of life in Provence is the sun, wrote Waverly Root in his authoritative book, "The Food of France" (Vintage Books, $13 softcover). It not only lured such stellar painters as van Gogh and Matisse to its brilliant countryside, but it created a unique, heady cuisine as well.

Provence is known for rose wines that writer Alexis Lichine described as having "a certain roughness combined with liveliness and gaiety and with a high enough alcoholic content that the drinker is apt soon to take on the same characteristics."

The southeast coast of France yields sun-kissed ingredients that are essential to the cooking: the olive and olive oil, garlic and tomatoes.

"The olive," wrote Mr. Root, "enters virtually every other food until the cheese and dessert courses are reached."

As for garlic, it's the truffle of Provence, he says.

And tomatoes are just as essential. It's safe to say that a dish described as a la Provencale will contain cooked tomatoes (of course, it's flavored with olive oil and a generous portion of garlic).

It's no wonder that this intense cuisine heightened by sunlight has captured our imaginations. We crave the simple, bold flavors that the foods of Provence promise. And we no doubt daydream about a beautiful countryside covered with thyme, rosemary and oregano growing wild.

During the waning days of summer, prepare Chicken Provencal and accompany it with Rice, Capers and Corn Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette. Set up dinner on the deck or in the back yard and enjoy a perfumed glass of rose. Then pretend those weeds are lavendar.

Rice-Corn Salad With Mustard Vinaigrette

Makes 2 servings

1 ear corn, cooked

1 1/2 cups cooked rice

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1 heaping tablespoon minced cilantro

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

salt, freshly ground white pepper

1/4 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts or walnuts

Use paring knife at an angle to scrape kernels from corn and place them in serving bowl. Add rice, capers and cilantro. Toss gently but well.

Combine lemon juice, oil, mustard and salt and pepper to taste in small cup. Pour over corn mixture. Stir in nuts.

Chicken Provencal

Makes 2 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced, then slices cut in half

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 chicken half (breast and thigh/drumstick portion)

1 tablespoon brandy

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 large tomato, peeled and diced

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon crushed, dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried thyme

2 tablespoons tomato sauce

1/4 cup dry ripe olives (see Note)

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil

salt, freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in large skillet. Add onions and garlic and saute over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Add chicken half, skin-side down, and brown about 5 minutes. Remove chicken from skillet.

Add brandy and wine and cook, scraping up any browned bits in skillet, over medium heat until liquids are reduced to 1 tablespoon. Stir in tomato, bay leaf, oregano, thyme and tomato sauce. Add olives and chicken. Spoon some of pan liquids onto chicken. Cover and simmer 35 to 40 minutes.

Stir in basil and simmer, covered, an additional 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf.

Note: Dry ripe olives are available in gourmet and natural food stores.

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