Marianne Vallet-Sandre left France at 14, but a half-century later, it is plain that France never left her.
You can hear it in her voice, where even after decades of living and teaching in Buffalo, Vallet-Sandre retains a slight French accent. It is also in her love of Mediterranean-inflected foods like eggplant, tomatoes and artichokes, rooted in her childhood in Nice.
Though Vallet-Sandre is retired after 30 years teaching design at Buffalo State College, she still offers lessons -- in the French way of cooking. As a member of the Alliance Francaise of Buffalo, the local chapter of a Francophone society, Vallet-Sandre (pronounced valley-sandra) turns her home into a culinary classroom for fellow members.
With co-teacher Alessandra Cassini, Vallet-Sandre conducts seminars in her spacious kitchen, with its rack of copper cooking vessels and cookstove framed in 250-year-old handpainted French tile. Recently they taught a session focused on "the cooking of the Maghreb," exploring the spices and tastes of Tunisia and Morocco.
"I guess you could characterize some of my recipes as Mediterranean -- herbs, garlic, olive oil -- but not always," Vallet-Sandre said. "Good ingredients, healthy things."
In recent years, Western New Yorkers have had access to most of the raw materials she would have used in France, she said. "You can get ingredients now, pretty much," she said. There's one favorite cheese, Cantal, that's unavailable because the United States bars cheeses made from raw milk.
That's an exception, though, said Vallet-Sandre. "I don't miss the bread as much any more," she said.
With her son, Yvon, grown, Vallet-Sandre cooks for herself and husband Paul Pasquarello, a New York Power Authority archivist and former Courier-Express photographer. "I genuinely enjoy making something nice to delight some friends, and we've always had tons and tons of people visit," she said.
A year-round favorite everyone enjoys is chicken braised with port wine and finished with a dash of cream. "That's actually a Portuguese recipe that can be done ahead of time," she said. Or duck breast with pears, candied in sauce, beside wild rice.
Her eyes light up as she describes her leg of lamb. She carefully trims a bone-in leg, then "enrobes" it with Dijon mustard. Then in her Cuisinart, she makes "wonderfully moist" fresh bread crumbs with minced garlic and parsley. Pressed into the meat, they form a coat that is doused with melted butter before roasting.
"It comes out crusty on the outside, moist on the inside," she says, savoring the memory. "Delicious."
To share with News readers, Vallet-Sandre chose beef roulade, a section of tenderloin flattened into a wrapping for herbed goat cheese, blanched red peppers and spinach. It's a relatively complicated dish for company, one that appeals to her sense of deliciousness combined with visual appeal.
Vallet-Sandre urged cooks considering the dish to make it a day ahead of time, and refrigerate it. It's at its best after being allowed to return to room temperature before being sliced and served, she said.
Plus, making it ahead gives cooks leeway if things go awry. With News staffers watching, Vallet-Sandre discovered that her cylinder of filling was too large for the beef sheet, leaving some red pepper layer exposed. But she persisted, using plastic wrap to tightly pack the roll.
As it turned out, the roulade didn't need to be perfect to look good, and taste magnifique.
> Roulade de Filet de Boeuf (Stuffed Beef Tenderloin)
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, stems removed
1 11-ounce log fresh goat cheese, crumbled
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 whole beef fillet, trimmed (around 3-4 pounds)
3 large red bell peppers, roasted or scalded, peeled
Extra virgin olive oil
Reserve 8 large spinach leaves, and blanch the rest in a small amount of boiling water. Refresh under cold water; drain. Squeeze out extra moisture, pat dry and coarsely chop.
Combine spinach, cheese, rosemary, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a bowl and mix well. Shape cheese mixture into a 12-inch log on a sheet of waxed paper or plastic wrap. Chill, well wrapped, until firm. Can be prepared 1 day in advance, stored in refrigerator.
Butterfly the fillet by cutting lengthwise down the center, leaving 3/4 inch of meat to connect halves. Open the fillet book-style and place between layers of plastic wrap. With meat mallet or rolling pin, pound the meat to about 3/4 inch thick.
Remove top plastic. Season meat with salt and pepper. Layer reserved spinach leaves over the cut side of the beef, leaving a one-inch border all around. Layer with peppers, peeled side up.
Place cheese log on one side of beef. Roll the beef into a tight roll, using plastic wrap underneath to help keep it tight. Secure with kitchen twine about every inch or so, then carefully slit plastic wrap and pull it from underneath twine.
Preheat oven to 375. Heat olive oil in a large skillet and brown beef on all sides. (Or brown on grill.)
Place beef in a roasting pan, paint with more olive oil, sprinkle a little more salt and pepper on the surface and roast for 35 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted into beef registers 130-135 degrees for medium rare.
Let stand at least 15 minutes before slicing, to eat warm. Or allow to cool to room temperature before slicing for a cold buffet.
Entire roulade may be prepared and cooked 1 day ahead and refrigerated overnight, but it must be allowed to return to room temperature before serving, a minimum of one hour.
Name: Marianne Vallet-Sandre
Dish: Roulade de Filet de Boeuf (Beef Roulade)
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to quick meal: Filet mignon with bleu cheese sauce
Guilty pleasure: Eggs Benedict