French food simplified

It would be easy to bristle at a cook who grows her own capers. (Who has time? Who knows how?) But don't let that dissuade you from exploring this book by Patricia Wells, that most authoritative American voice on all foods French.

Whether it's a brief ode to olive oil or a simple recipe for linguine with saffron, Wells' The Provence Cookbook (HarperCollins Publishers, 2004, $29.95) offers local lore and marketing tips while conjuring the sunshine, aromas and flavors of southern France.


Perhaps more important, it describes delectable dishes made for the most part with surprisingly simple ingredients. Putting thin slices of lemon (sliced right over the bowl to capture the juices) in a mix of ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, croutons and salty capers, for example, adds a blast of freshness to a delightfully light summer salad.

Adding splintery branches of rosemary to potatoes roasted over hot coals transforms everyday starch to savory treat. Lemon again seems to be the secret ingredient in a brown-rice dish made with pine nuts and bay leaves. Wells suggests using Camargue rice, grown just south of Arles, but other long-grain varieties can be substituted - and her short description of the rice acts as a sort of educational tidbit.


Wells, the longtime restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune, sandwiches her recipes between anecdotes and seasons them with tips, including wine suggestions.

The menu suggestions at the back of the book have titles that may make you yearn for her life: "A Summer Luncheon Under a Tent" or "A Winter Truffle Feast." You forgive her, though, because she also has included a recipe for a genuinely quick homemade variation on that olive-lovers' favorite spread, tapenade.

Salad of Tomatoes, Lemons, Croutons, Capers and Basil

Serves 4 to 6

1 lemon

4 firm, ripe, medium tomatoes (about 1 pound), cored and sliced lengthwise

4 slices whole-grain bread, toasted and cut into cubes

1/2 cup capers in vinegar, drained


1 cup fresh basil leaves

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons best-quality vinegar

fine sea salt to taste

Cut the lemon into paper-thin slices, shaving the slices directly into a large, shallow bowl to catch all the juices. Layer the tomatoes on top of the lemon. Sprinkle with bread cubes. Scatter the capers and basil on top.

Drizzle with the oil and vinegar. Season with salt. Toss to coat the ingredients. Let sit for 5to 10 minutes to allow the flavors to mellow, then serve as first course or as part of a buffet.


Per serving: 141 calories; 3 grams protein; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 509 milligrams sodium