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Fresh From The Garden

Chef Specializes In Local Produce, French Traditions

By Marla Hinkle
THE MORNING NEWS, October 28th, 2007

EUREKA SPRINGS-- When Karen Gros and her students are in France, they go as locals, not tourists. The American-born, French-taught chef takes her group on yearly food adventures and brings A Taste Of Provence to her Eureka Springs home for monthly cooking classes.

"Everything I learned about French cooking was from my mothers-in-law Charlotte Gros and Huguette Larrieu, and recipes passed down from generations. There's a niche that needs to be filled here," she said of the Northwest Arkansas culinary scene.

The chef's kitchen in Eureka Springs is described as "buttery yellow." She wears an apron designed by her children, Manon and Marcello; the apron displays an Eiffel tower and raspberry tart with steam rising from the crust.

A plate of Madeleines and coffee are ready for her guests. A large painting hangs on a wall above the table. La Lavande was painted by a friend, Sheri Mount of Los Angeles. It depicts a turn-of-the century woman with a real brooch in her hat. A chalkboard announcing daily specials is shown below. "My best friend did that for me as a surprise. It shows our whole life," Gros said. La Lavande means lavender and is the name of her kitchen.

Some beginning cooks may be intimidated by French cooking, but Gros said she assures her students that it doesn't have to be hard to be gourmet. "I teach them to make food from scratch. Then they develop a basic understanding of sauces and what herbs pair best with foods."

Gros wasn't always interested in cooking. She prepared lasagna for every boyfriend she had until she met her husband, Patrice, who was born in France. "He was the cook," she said. The couple met on a blind date in Los Angeles. Patrice was working as a financial adviser for American Express. Karen used her degree in marketing to pursue a career.

Patrice discovered he had a passion for farming at their home near Santa Barbara, Calif. He become more interested in progressive farming when he learned about the hazards of large-scale agricultural farming, his wife said.

"We decided to buy a one-way ticket to France to live in an abandoned hamlet in the south of France. The day before we left I found out I was pregnant." They lived in the hamlet for seven months before relocating to Berryville. The choice allowed the Gros family to pursue growing vegetables on a farm and to stay close to her family in Tulsa. They later moved to Eureka Springs.

Karen is in her third year of cuisine trips to France and fourth year of offering classes in her home.

It was the lack of restaurant options that inspired her. "I can pull the memory in my taste buds to recreate dishes," Gros said.

Karen Knowles Zuniga, a friend in Los Angeles, said guests are still raving about Karen Gros' food she catered for Zuniga's wedding. "Karen really brought something incredibly special to our wedding that had a touch to it wouldn't have had without her. She brought with her amazing ingredients from her husband's farm."

The menu included lavender-infused chocolate tart and pea soup. Gros presented a cookbook containing the recipes used in the wedding to the couple as a memento. "Nobody is as talented and brings their heart and soul into their cooking and teaching the way that she does. She is really amazing," Zuniga said.

Gros prepares a lot of Provencal dishes like those made famous by one of her favorite movies, "Ratatouille." Daube, a classic France stew made with cubed beef braised in red wine and vegetables, roasted lamb and caramelized onion tart are a few of her specialties. Her "claim to fame" is a green spinach tart, she said. The recipe is included with this article.

Growing A Dream

Patrice Gros started Foundation Farm in 2006. The model farm and learning center allows school groups and others to learn about growing sustainable food. He sells produce at local farmers' markets and restaurants.

Karen said he lectures groups on how to start a farm from the ground up, financing and tools of the trade. He has been invited by universities, including the University of Arkansas, to speak about climate change and how it affects the food supply.

Wal-Mart has sent consultants to introduce local and sustainable agriculture to consumers.

The Groses grow several Mediterranean vegetables, peppers, eggplants, squash, head lettuce, baby salad greens and lot of herbs. A greenhouse located below their home allows Patrice to get an early jump on spring. He grows everything but potatoes, Karen added.

Many students enjoy the social aspect of cooking just as much as the food itself, Karen said. She keeps the classes small, 8 to 10 people, to maintain a relaxed atmosphere.

"What is great about the trips to Paris and Provence is the reunion party, where we get together and trade stories and photos. The one thing we all have in common is we love Paris , and even if we are not all avid cooks, most of us appreciate good food," Gros said. On these trips, students collect about six items at an outdoor market, picnic in the park and shop for a cooking party that will be held in apartments.

A French chef makes dinner for a party at the trip's end. When Gros is in Paris , her favorite restaurant to visit is Bofinger. "It's a classic, famous place to go."

Jerry Ruth Griffith of Eureka Springs visited Paris with Gros' group last year and said she enjoyed it immensely. "Karen never makes you feel inadequate. She is a fun person and good teacher." Griffith said Gros passes around her creations during cooking classes for students to analyze the food's texture and color. The classes are also interesting because of the mix of young and old, beginning and accomplished cooks, she said. "What I really like about her menus is the fact that the ingredients are always things you can buy at the Eureka Springs Farmers' Market or Fayetteville Farmers' Market."

Another student, Lynn Blakeman of Rogers , also plans to take the 2008 trip in June to Provence . The Bouillabaisse culinary class will include a tour of a fish market in Marseille's Old Port. "Karen's classes are intimate. She covers some basic cooking techniques, not just French things, and provides helpful hints and recipes. She is so patient and charming. Her kitchen has a nice, cozy feeling to it."

Home Cooking

"What better way to inspire people than to feed them," Gros said. "Food is critical to our lives. We should eat homemade food every day." Her advice is to get into the kitchen and find someone whose style you like. "Sign up for a class so you can actually see the food as it is prepared," Gros said.

"A lot of times it's hard to read recipes. I'm a visual learner. When I am teaching my students, I tell them things as I go along and include anecdotes about the recipes.
"For example, why you need to brush the surface with egg glaze, so it will not get soggy; the little things I'm doing and why. Nuances like that are important."

Betty Jo Ezell of Fayetteville said being in Gros' home is delightful. "Karen is very sweet and knowledgeable about French cooking and techniques."

A typical day for Gros might involve perusing her considerable cookbook volumes and translating recipes from French to English.

She suggests Sunday as a day to "set aside" for cooking more challenging recipes. The Gros family enjoys simple dishes like sauteed vegetables and soups during the week.

Maintaining the daily business of her classes and tours keeps Gros busy. The family was featured in an article in Southern Living Magazine this summer.

Her goals are to continue her classes and tours.

Gros eases the transition for those who are not fluent in French. She plans to keep her schedule of a week in Paris and 10 days in Provence each year. She will gradually add other regions in France to the itinerary.

"To show people France is my goal."

FROM THE KITCHEN

Savory Greens & Gruyere Tart

Fall greens are in season. This delicious and nutritious tart is always a hit! Spinach and chard are the most popular choice of greens for tarts.

1 recipe Pate Brisee (recipe follows)
2 bunches greens, stems removed & thoroughly washed
1 bunch green onions or 1/2 an onion
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 eggs
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup grated gruyere (or Swiss) cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

Place a large stockpot of water to boil. After washing the greens at least twice in a bowl of water (wash until the water runs clear), set greens aside in a colander in the sink. Prepare an ice-water bath in a large bowl.

Prepare the pastry crust, as directed in the following recipe.

Meanwhile, blanch the greens: Once the water is boiling, add greens, pushing them quickly down into the water with a wooden spoon, and set your timer as follows: (if using a combination of greens, add those which require a longer cooking time first) collards & kale, 4 minutes; chard, 2 minutes; spinach, 1 minute.

Do not allow water to re-boil. Strain the cooked greens from the cooking water, transferring directly into the ice-water bath, and stir until cool (about 1 minute). Strain again, this time squeezing out any excess water. Coarsely chop the greens and set aside.

Increase temperature to 375 degrees. In a large saucepan, saute the green onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add chopped greens to the saucepan, and saute until any remaining water is evaporated (2-3 minutes). Slightly beat eggs, whipping cream, and seasonings; add the greens and onion mixture.

Sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the tart crust and pour greens mixture onto the cheese, using a spatula to ensure even coverage. Bake until firmly set in the center and slightly puffed (20-30 minutes depending on the oven). Remove from oven and allow to sit 10 minutes before cutting.

Servings: One 10-inch tart. Serves 8 as first course or 12 as appetizer.

Pate Brisee

This is the basic pie crust recipe, perfect for quiche and savory tarts. While this recipe is best prepared in a French tart pan, if you do not have one, you may use a regular 10-inch pie dish and adjust the height of the crust to make the tart no more than 1-inch thick (note: recipe will not cook properly if tart is thicker than 1 1/2 inches). The "thinness" of French tarts is one of the delectable elements that sets them apart from American-style pies.

Equipment needed: 11-inch French tart pan and 2-3 cups dried beans, to weight tart crust (may be reused)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut in pieces
2 Tablespoons or more ice water

Egg wash: 1 whole egg plus 1 teaspoon water

Place flour, salt and sugar in bowl of food processor and process for a few seconds to combine. Add the butter pieces to the flour mixture and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10 seconds.

Add the ice water in a slow, steady stream, through the feed tube while pulsing, just until the dough holds together. Do not process more than 30 seconds or allow machine to run continuously, or dough will become tough.

(If mixing dough manually, whisk flour, salt and sugar together; cut butter into flour with pastry cutter or fork until butter pieces are pea-size or smaller. Add just enough ice water to make pastry hold together.)

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and roll out until the dough extends the tart pan by 1 inch all around, dusting with more flour to avoid sticking. (Do not add more flour than necessary).

Fold dough in half and in half again in order to lift it without tearing. Place into tart pan and shape dough to pan. Prick the bottom all over with a fork to allow steam to escape. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes, or place in freezer 10-15 minutes.

This allows the butter to solidify and create a flakier crust. (When placed in a pre-heated oven, the solidified chilled butter holds a "space" as the pastry sets, creating a lighter pastry than would room temperature butter.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the pastry crust in with parchment paper and pour the dried beans onto the parchment paper to weight the pastry and prevent shrinking. Bake for 10 minutes.

Remove parchment paper and beans and bake an additional 2 minutes until cooked and slightly puffed but not colored. Remove from oven and glaze with egg wash, then bake again 2 minutes. Repeat the egg wash procedure if using watery ingredients, such as spinach or greens. Set aside until ready to add filling.

Servings: One 11-inch tart crust.

-- Recipes from Karen Gros

AT A GLANCE:

For more information on attending A Taste of Provence class, call 253-7461, or view the Web site at www.cuisinekaren.com.

BIOGRAPHY

Karen Gros

Birthdate and place: July 7, 1965, Tulsa , Okla.

Education: Business degree from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles .

Parents: Frank and Marilyn Chitwood

Husband: Patrice Gros

Children: Manon and Marcello

Favorite dish to make: Any savory tart