Eccentrics

IMG_4379One of the first things I noticed when we moved to our little village in very rural southern France: the elderly residents would go to the bakery for their daily baguette while wearing bedroom slippers. Always plaid flannel ones. How charmingly eccentric, I thought.
But far and away the weirdest tale in the village concerns the pornographer parents.
At the time our kid was small—maybe two years old—there was quite a group of mothers who would show up at the park for about an hour before lunch and again after the afternoon nap. A very young woman came one day with her child—new to the village—and we welcomed them into the group.

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A hive of activity.

She was a little odd, but we attributed it to her age. We were all older—I was a late starter, another had teenagers and then decided to have one more baby, two others also had teens and were foster parents to toddlers. The new arrival didn’t work, and her husband was a security guard, she said. They were from Bordeaux. She wore her hair tied up, no makeup, baggy clothes.
One day, we were at the park when her husband came by, panicked. Where were they? Were any strangers around? They might have been kidnapped! Calm down, they just left, we told him, wondering why he was acting so strangely.

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Traffic.

We had playdates and birthday parties in addition to our park outings. The new mother gave a birthday party for her kid, and we all showed up. The house was indistinguishable from everybody else’s, with a kitchen opening to a dining area, with a Winnie-the-Pooh playhouse, and then to the living room. A high shelf ran all the way around the living room and held all kinds of movie cameras. They collected them, she said.
P1060892About a month later, one of the moms came to the park with big news. The young mother was a porn star, along with her husband. Another mom and her husband had been to the Salon de l’érotisme in Toulouse and had recognized them—they lived a couple of houses apart and hadn’t known until then.
WTF?!?!?!
I looked up the porn star’s site. There was a photo of her in a French maid outfit, leaning over the kitchen sink that I recognized, and I realized the photo must have been shot from next to the Winnie-the-Pooh house. There also was a film shot in the park!

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Sexy, no?

The foster mothers were livid that the young woman hadn’t told them about her real occupation. They could have lost their jobs or faced a lot of headaches.
Two things made me furious: The porn site had lots of photos of their child—not sexual ones but it was still creepy, with captions like “if you love me, send presents to my little girl.” The other thing that made me mad was that the address for sending stuff was in the village. They didn’t even bother to get a post office box in town. No wonder the husband was worried about kidnappers.
I felt really bad for their daughter. She was very nervous and didn’t talk much. On school outings, she wouldn’t eat. She would hide her food and pretend she ate it. I remember putting her hair into a ponytail for her—it was very long but so terribly thin.
The parents divorced; he was abusive and the porn star often had bruises. They moved away—I don’t know where to—after a few years.
P1080570Not to end on such a low note, I’ll go even lower with the tale of another resident.
There’s an older guy, very tall and and thin and gaunt, and with a stiff gait. He must have looked older than his age at first, because almost 15 years later he still looks the same, and I’d still guess him to be about 70. He was one of the regulars we would greet on our way to school in the mornings. I always thought, “Aw, he’s going to tend graves at the cemetery, how touching,” because the only things in that direction are the cemetery, some vineyards and the garrigue. He didn’t carry tools for pruning vines or fixing wires, so the cemetery was the logical destination.
I recently learned that he doesn’t go to the cemetery but to the woods to do his business! Even in bad weather! Does the man not have indoor plumbing? Another villager surprised him in the act one day. And chewed him out. But it didn’t have any effect on him—he still heads for the woods every morning. Now when I pass him, I wince. And I stay away from the woods!
No wonder he has such a weird walk.

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Not the well-fertilized woods, but close.

Share your tales of local color.

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Big Night

IMG_4511The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.

On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).

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By the morning of, most of the food was made and ready to plate.

Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes. Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 11.50.08 AM

The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.

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Chorizo “cookies.” Instead of sun-dried tomatoes, we went with black olives. Prettier.

I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.

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Nut bars. Easy and yummy. From the Silver Palate cookbook.

On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.

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For deviled eggs: mix yolks with mayo and mustard (same number of spoonfuls, but use tablespoons for the mayo and teaspoons for the mustard, until you have the consistency you want). Put into a plastic bag whose corner you’ve reinforced with at least six strips of tape. Seal the bag, cut off the tip and you have no-mess filling of the eggs.

The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. IMG_4494Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. IMG_4490Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.

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Crudités, for something light and fresh amid the carbs. I love that purple cauliflower.

Here are the links to the recipes again:

Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).

Chorizo cookies (I made them mini)

Salmon croissants

Pizza croissants

Ham and cheese pinwheels

Curry-cheese madeleines

Cheesecake bars

Raspberry mousse bars (if you use frozen berries, thaw them first)

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Chocolate cake done as mini cupcakes for easier eating.

The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.IMG_4464This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.

Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.IMG_4516

 

 

 

 

Holiday Spirit

P1060368Between batches of savory curry madeleines (better not frozen), I am pounding out this post. IMG_4477The process of cooking is taking longer than I expected because of mechanical difficulties. I have one madeleine mold, which I bought 20 years ago when I was living in Brussels and spending weekends in Paris and figuring that I’d be back in the U.S. in a year and wouldn’t it be cute to have something so quintessentially French? And then I more or less stayed and had easy access to excellent madeleines and I focused instead on making things I couldn’t get here–Mexican food–and never made madeleines until a couple of weeks ago.

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Held upside down!

I don’t see a point in buying another madeleine mold; as good as these curry-cheese madeleines are, I don’t expect to make them all the time, much less a double batch.

And since the madeleines stick ever so slightly, I have to wash the mold between batches. (I tried oil, butter, butter and flour, but the madeleines still cling to the supposedly nonstick mold.)IMG_4481It takes forever!

Do you ever have crises like that?

I don’t consider it a huge crisis. I wanted everything to be done today, and I still think it’s possible.

Meanwhile, some local color. The Carcassonne Christmas market officially opens tomorrow, though it has been set up for a while.

Here are some photos from last year.

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The market as night falls.
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Bûche de Noël–Christmas logs of sponge cake and buttercream frosting.
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A manger. In a tent in a parking lot, but you make do.
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Woodworking demonstration.
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Honey demonstration. Artisans rule.
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Honey products–beeswax candles, spice cake.
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Pretty lights. The blue drops seem like water falling.
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The village Charlie Brown tree…better lit than during the day.

Complete rundown of the party, recipes, photos and how-to coming Tuesday!!! Promise!

Party Organization

IMG_4431The countdown to Saturday’s apéritif dinatoire begins. Shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and more cooking.

We put up the tree and added a few decorations. We even strung lights outside.

We did most of the shopping. My favorite sous-chef made a double batch of chocolate crinkle cookies, which passed the freezer test with flying colors. Just as good thawed as fresh.

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You can’t see the snowflakes here, but it looked a lot like Christmas.

My do-everything-ahead plan was thrown off by two days spent in Carcassonne at our apartments. Still, it felt like a mini vacation, especially the sauna, and was a nice breather. Our kid had events all day on Saturday, when it snowed. People here panic when it snows. The ones with SUVs drive far too fast, not realizing that big vehicles still slide on ice. Other people creep along at a maddeningly slow crawl, causing backups and then some idiot comes along and decides to pass despite not being able to see whether it’s clear. Some years ago I had to drive to town during a snowstorm. I cut my speed by half–not a crawl but slow enough that I wouldn’t need to brake hard to stop. I counted a dozen cars in the ditch in a 20-minute drive. Rather than take any risks with snow forecast, we decided to stay in at our Carcassonne AirBnB apartments, which was empy between guests. The snow fell as if cued by a movie director, light flakes drifting down cinematically all day. All the kids had their faces turned skyward to catch the fleeting flakes. It was cold for here (low 40s) but too warm for snow, which melted as soon as it touched the ground.

 

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The market has been displaced from its usual square, which now is filled by a skating rink.
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An unusual dripping tree. I like it.

The best-laid plans still go astray, whether due to weather or other reasons.

Here are some of the things that can be made well in advance:

 

 

Chocolate crackle cookies. They need to chill for a few hours or overnight. I think that, like chocolate chip cookies, they are better if the dough sits overnight. When they are cool, store them in a plastic container with the layers separated by parchment paper. Freeze.

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My handwriting, from 1979. Talk about a keeper recipe! Melt the chocolate, stir in everything, chill, scoop out little balls, roll in regular sugar then in powdered sugar, bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes. 

Other things you can freeze:

 

Chocolate cake–not frosted. Chocolate cake also gets better after a couple of days. I will make it three days ahead.

Cheesecake (I’m using the Smitten Kitchen recipe). Also keeps up to three days.

Spanish tortilla (a thick omelette with potatoes). This also keeps fine for up to three days.

Hummus, which can keep for a week in the fridge.

Cheesy curry madeleines. These thawed out nicely in our test, but I must admit the fresh ones were more amazing, even after a couple of days.

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Some of the shopping. 90 eggs!!!

Timeline for other items on the menu:

 

Nut bars, which are like a sheetcake version of pecan pie, from the Silver Palate cookbook. A favorite of one of the guests: up to 7 days ahead.

Chorizo “cookies”: 3 days ahead

Satay chicken wings: 3 days ahead. Will reheat.

Peanut dipping sauce: 3 days ahead.

Meatballs: 3 days ahead.

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I bought one of these beauties. No filter! They are really that color!

Crudités: 2 days ahead. Store carrot sticks and radishes in water, which keeps them sweet and crisp. The rest will be cut and put into plastic bags. I’ll blanch the cauliflower and broccoli.

 

Deviled eggs: 2 days ahead to hard-boil the eggs, cut them in half and separate out the yolks. The whites and yolks will be stored separately and assembled same day, or maybe the night before.

Day ahead:

Puff-pastry rollups

Zucchini-cheese chips (but I’ll grate the zucchini a day before that)

Salmon mousse

Date/olive/goat cheese tart 

Raspberry mousse bars

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The little potato gratin stacks I mentioned last time. Delicious but way too fussy for a crowd. Why it’s good to test recipes in advance.

Depending on how things are going, I might also make a kind of French “cake,” which is a savory loaf with vegetables and meat or fish. I was disappointed with the tuna-zucchini recipe, but might try a different one.

 

Today I am going to make the nut bars, deep clean and rearrange the furniture. More photos coming Friday!

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More Carcassonne Christmas décor. BTW, the bûches de Noël in the top photo are from across the street from here, Noez bakery.

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Fête de la Lumière

P1090214The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.

Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.

The Festival of Lights is more of a Scandinavian tradition than a French one, but Lyon does la Fête des Lumières in a big way.

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Store-bought pie crust, covered with spaghetti sauce, ham and cheese, then rolled up and cut (OK if they’re loose–the pastry will expand) and baked at 360 F (180 C).

For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.

We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.

We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.

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No recipe needed: store-bought pie crust cut into triangles and rolled up with Boursin cheese and smoked salmon, sprinkled with mustard seeds and baked.

Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.

Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.

Other requirements for the food:

—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.

—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.

—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.

—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.

—Must be easy on the budget.

—Must be in season.

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Zucchini-cheese chips. Grated zucchini mixed with grated cheese. Put little piles on a cookie sheet and back at 350 F (180 C). 

The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:

Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.

Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.

Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.

Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.

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Cheesy madeleines (also in the top photo). Aren’t they pretty!

I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!

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I’ve had this cookbook since 1989 and you can see it has gotten plenty of use.

I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.

Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!

Christmas Prep

hotel in la cite 2Signs of Christmas in Carcassonne have been sprouting faster than mushrooms after a rain. Lights have been strung on the pedestrian shopping street.

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That’s supposed to be a kind of lit-up snowball.

More lights went up on the central square, Place Carnot. The fountain of Neptune was swathed with fake snow, because on the day of the photo temps were in the low 60s Fahrenheit. No snow in these parts. It’s supposed to get cold next week, which is just as well for the big ice rink that will take up much of the square.

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I found it funny that the guys putting up the “snow” were dressed in white.
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Huge piles of lights…imagine trying to untangle them. Did you know they get recycled? The plastic is stripped off and made into soles for slippers.

The chalets for the Christmas market were installed. The market runs from Dec. 6 to Jan. 7 this year. It’s lively all day but best at night, when the lights are on. P1090125In general, the folks around here stick to low-key decorations. I’ve seen more people put up lights, but not as much as in the U.S.P1060354hotel in la cite

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Notice the creature at the end of the gutter.
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This is the most elaborate house I’ve seen around here, in a photo from last year.
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The spiral going up is a palm tree. I love that a palm tree is decorated for Christmas.

There are some interesting interpretations of Christmas trees.

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What won’t people do with pallets?

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Decorations from a squash/pumpkin vendor at the market.

Another sign of the season: the arrival of Graisse de Noël (Christmas fat), which is a cross between Cantal cheese and butter. OMG it is fantastic.

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See it at the top?

The municipal workers also have been busy removing the frost-sensitive flowers and replacing them with hardier varieties like pansies, cyclamen and chrysanthemums. Having grown up with snow, I am enchanted by the idea of planting winter flowers.

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Out with the old…
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In with the new.

We hope to get a tree this weekend, if they’re available. We are throwing a big holiday party (more on that coming soon…menu and recipes), so the decorations will rise beyond the usual.

Have you decorated yet? Real tree or fake? Less is more or more is more?

La Pissaladièra

P1090099The day after Thanksgiving might not be the moment to share a recipe. Some of you will be reading this in a postprandial carb-induced stupor. But after you’re back from Black Friday consumption, you can turn to this little treasure, either for an appetizer—feeds a crowd!—or for a kind of pizza niçoise.

La pissaladièra or la pissaladière is a dish from the Mediterranean city of Nice, and like most dishes that carry the city’s name, it includes anchovies and olives. La pissaladièra is like pizza or focaccia, but topped with onions, garlic, olives, and, above all, anchovies. It can be served hot or at room temperature, which means you can make it a while in advance. For appetizers, cut small pieces.

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Montagné’s recipe. Even the one (ONE!) garlic clove is optional!! Almost no quantities given.

As with many French recipes, there are several ways to go about this. Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, the great chef who wrote the original bible of French cooking, Larousse Gastronomique, says you can make it with bread dough or with demi-feuilletage, which is a simpler form of pâte feuilletée, but still with lots of butter. Montagné says that pissaladièra (he spells it with an “a” at the end) is much more savoureuse—tasty—with demi-feuilletage. The wonders of butter. He even offers an option using stale bread, because when it was published in 1936, people did not throw away food, even stale. Yet the French always eat well, even in bad times. They have much to teach us.

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Rising under plastic wrap. Your astuce for success.

Someplace (and I can’t find it! but I didn’t imagine it nor invent it but I always do it) suggested dressing up the rolled-out dough and covering it with plastic wrap so it rises again, for an even airier crust. This works very well. For pizza, I want to eject the dressed-up dough onto the stone in the oven, so it can’t sit or it sticks to the pizza paddle. But pissaladièra gets cooked in a sheet pan, so it can rest and rise with ease. If you do this, be sure to use plastic wrap and not a tea towel. I tried to be all écolo (environmentally correct) and put a clean cloth on top, but the anchovies stuck to the cloth and came off when I removed the cloth. Blech.

While pissaladièra is associated with summer, there is no good reason for that, other than that people tend to visit Nice when it’s nice. But there are no seasonal ingredients and in winter, onions are a staple. A year-round winner.P1090087Montagné says to cut out a round of dough with a kind of straight-sided mold (un cercle à flan) and then to place it in a large pie plate called a tourtière (in Canada, tourtière is a kind of meat pie, just to keep it confusing). You can make it round or square.

For all that I love and respect Montagné, he suggests only ONE garlic clove. How is that even possible? I used a head of garlic, which I broke up and cooked, the cloves still in their jackets, very slowly with the onions. First, garlic makes this a great winter dish because it’s supposed to ward off colds. Second, the unpeeled garlic kind of steams in its jacket, rendering it very tender and mild. Being a nice chef, I peeled the soft cloves before putting them on the pissaladièra, because who wants to do that when they’re about to take a bite?P1090082Last, the European way is to measure ingredients by weight rather than by volume. It’s very convenient and once you try it, you won’t go back!

La Pissaladière/Pissaladièra

Make the dough:

500 grams (3 1/4 cups) flour

2 packets of yeast

200 ml (3/4 cup) warm water

60 ml (1/4 cup) olive oil

1 tsp salt

Sprinkle the yeast on the warm water in a small bowl. In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt and olive oil. When the yeast has bubbled up, pour it into the flour mixture. Knead. Put in a large oiled bowl, cover with a tea towl and let it rest for at least an hour.

Cook the onions:

1.5 kg (3 1/3 pounds, but hey, onions are forgiving; you can go over or under) onions

At least 8 cloves to a whole head of garlic, broken into cloves with the skin still on

2 Tbs thyme

100 g (3 or 4 oz.) of black olives

10 filets of anchovies in oil (or more)

2 Tbs anchovy cream (optional)

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Heat a little olive oil in a large pot—enough oil to cover the bottom, and cook the onions over low heat. Stir in the thyme and the garlic. Cover and stir from time to time. It will take a good 45 minutes. Before the onions are finished, preheat the oven to as hot as it will go (400F or 200C).

The onions should be nice and soft, a little caramelized but not crispy, and the garlic should be completely melted. Pick out the garlic cloves and let them cool so you can peel them.

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OMG those soft garlic cloves!

Spread the dough on a sheet pan. You can roll or use your fingers. Prick it all over with a fork. Spread the onions on the dough. Distribute the peeled garlic, anchovy filets and olives.

Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for another 30 minutes or longer.

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Before cooking. This is the moment when it got too dark for natural light and I turned on the garish lamp in the stove fan.

Remove the plastic wrap and bake for about 20 minutes. Check on it; your oven might be faster or slower.

Serve hot or cold. We had it for dinner—why not?

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Done! So delicious!

Le Shopping Outlet

P1080406France doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but le Black Friday is gaining popularity, right behind Halloween.

It’s nowhere near as crazy as in the U.S. For one thing, France has soldes–sales–twice a year, starting in mid-January and mid-July, and they last for six weeks, with bigger markdowns (and less choice) as time goes on.

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The “soldes” signs, in case you’re under a rock and not aware that the entire country is consumed by biannual discounts.

The French are pros at faire le pont—taking a bridge day between a mid-week holiday and the weekend—but with no Thanksgiving, the Friday after is just another workday.

France doesn’t have many malls of the Mall of America, “Clueless,” senior-speed-walker genre. The centres commercials usually are anchored by supermarkets, there usually are no food courts and they’re just much smaller.  I will admit it can be efficient to hit 20 stores without setting foot outside when you have a deadline to find something AND it’s 20 below zero. Happily, the weather here is not as brutal so I don’t miss the lack of malls at all.

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This is not a mall. It is a charming courtyard in downtown Toulouse. The pleasures of strolling the streets.

At the end of the summer soldes, my shopping buddy and I did the rounds in Toulouse. I was limited to leche-vitrine (window-licking, which is the wonderful French term for window shopping), but I got vicarious thrills by her spending. We strolled around the center, where many of the streets have been closed to traffic, except for bikes, which are now ubiquitous, and (parked) food carts. I love strolling in Toulouse. It’s a big city but not in a dangerous, pushy way, except on the périphérique. It’s mostly clean, with beautiful architecture, interesting boutiques, lovely little parks and squares, and a fun sprinkling of eccentrics to make hicksters smile. Don’t you want to go into a shop that has flying bare-breasted women nibbling on grapes over the entrance (see the top photo)?

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Some more Toulouse love: Those shutters! Those railings! Those bricks!
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Three–count ’em, THREE–lions. You don’t get that at the mall. The fountain (la fontaine Boulbonne) is an allegory representing the Garonne river offering electrical power to the city. Allegories are also in short supply at the mall.
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Some traditional architecture. See below.

Despite our best efforts to cover the entire downtown, a couple of items on the list hadn’t been found, at least not in the desired fit. On the way home, I asked whether she wanted to check out the factory outlet center in Nailloux. Why not, she said.

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Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in France anymore. No, Dorothy, this isn’t Kansas. It IS France!

It was a real mind trip. I had a similar experience going to the French-owned American-style Italian restaurant chain. I thought I was in the Midwest. We drove up a hill with waving fields of wheat on either side of the divided highway. At the top of the hill, we turned toward the flapping flags, and came upon a wonder of an American-style “outdoor” mall, designed to look like an old-fashioned main street rather than the dolled-up strip mall such things really are. They have none of the climatic convenience of a real mall and none of the charm of a real downtown. A few, like Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, are pretty enough, but a little sterile, with no real link to the surrounding city.

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Parking for a billion people? Check.

Anyway, Nailloux Outlet Village is one of them. Vaguely Spanish/Mediterranean/medieval (fake half-timbered) architecture. Music piped to its sterile sidewalks. Oceans of parking. Familiar brands: Levi’s, Nike, Samsonite…Also many French names: Little Marcel, Princesse TamTam, Comptoire des Cotonniers, Gérard Darel….and more.

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FAKE half-timbered buildings. And pseudo-Spanish something.

My buddy scored jeans that fit and some running shoes. We had ice cream in the “plaza.” I had a hard time speaking French and an urge to call up one of my friends back home to come on over and meet us. Le Temps des Cerises aside, it felt like an island of America.

These outlet villages are all over France. Here’s a link to a list. For all my complaining about the architecture, there are bargains to be had.

And there’s even an outlet village not far away, in Spain, north of Barcelona: La Roca Village.

Haven’t been there yet. Going from France to Spain and thinking I’m in America might make my head explode.

Sour Grapes

P1080971Waste not, want not.

One of the easiest things to DIY is vinegar. Here’s what you need:

A vinaigrier, or vinegar crock, with a spout and a lid. Vinegar likes to live in the dark.P1090104Une mère–a mother–the starter.

Wine. Yes. It’s clearer in French. Vinegar is vinaigre, or vin aigre–sour wine.

Long before we met, the wise Carnivore had acquired a vinaigrier and a mother (of the vinegar variety). Whenever we have a bad bottle–whether it’s corked or past its prime or left over from a party and not sealed up–we dump it into the vinaigrier. The resulting vinegar mostly goes on salads. P1090106It’s possible to make your own starter. Plenty of foods rely on starter cultures–sourdough bread and yogurt, for example. You can buy a mother of vinegar or you can make one. I don’t have a photo because you can’t tell what it is–just a blob of slime.P1090111You put the mother and the wine into the crock and wait a few months. It takes us that long to go through a bottle of vinegar–and to round up enough wine to add to the crock. Red ferments faster than white.

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Many choices at the vide-grenier.

You can get a vintage vinaigrier around here for between €10 and €50. Pretty and useful!P1050575

 

 

 

Connections, by Invitation Only

IMG_4957 copyStarting a new life in a new place is fraught, but doing it in a different language and culture adds a layer of complexity.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe expat bibliography is stuffed with tales of misunderstandings and scams suffered by poor newbies ignorant of the wily ways of the French contractor and the Kafkaesque requirements of the French bureaucracy.

We experienced none of that. Everybody was very professional. But at the beginning, with the Carnivore gone at work all day and me at home with a new baby, no car, no job and no friends, the transition was shockingly hard. Happily, very quickly, many people reached out, making connections with us and connecting us with the community, much to our surprise and delight.

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Why so many rainbows? Even when it rains, there’s sun.

One of the first was our neighbor’s father, who did not quite approve of foreigners next door. However, he gave us the name of a trustworthy local, J-C, who would keep tabs on the place when we were gone.

When we moved in for good, J-C was our guide. He told us where to find a doctor. Which led to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist looked at my address, said she lived in the same village, and that I should check out the gym classes at the community center.

The gym classes became my go-to for all kinds of information. The relative advantages of the various supermarkets in town. How to sign up a kid for preschool. Where to take baby-swimming lessons. What all those French acronyms mean. Any time I needed to know something, I would ask at gym class. I exercised my vocabulary as well as my muscles during the Wednesday night sessions. (For the most accurate weather report, eavesdrop on the line at the bakery.)P1070029The park was another touchstone. It must have been a magical time, because now when I run around the park, I no longer see mothers with little ones on the manicured lawn. I was lucky to have a nice clique of three other mothers as insistent as I was that kids need to go outside unless it’s pouring rain. They had kids the same age as mine, and our four were sometimes joined by various others who were more relaxed about the park-television ratio. Even on wintry days, we would go, huddling against the wind as the well-bundled little ones (emmitoufler is the adorable French word that means “to wrap up in warm clothes”) intently picked up rocks or leaves or chestnuts from one place and dropped them someplace else, while similarly well-bundled little old ladies perched like delicate brown birds on a bench against a sheltered, sun-warmed south wall, watching the spectacle. Who needs cat videos when you have live toddler performances?P1060482When I had surgery on my foot and was laid up for a month, these mothers came by every day to visit me. Every day. They also did the school runs, while another handled swim lessons.

That is when I knew it. I was loved. The roots were sinking in.

Have you ever planted seedlings from a nursery and then later pulled them out, the roots still in a tight ball? Meanwhile, other plants are nearly impossible to get out, having sent their roots wide and deep. 21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 432A difference with humans, though, is that we can have roots in many places at once. Mine are now spread across countries and continents.

I don’t like to think of having lost touch with old friends; there’s no repudiation of the time spent with them, and it’s only normal that we all devote most of our energies to those in our presence. Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, yet that’s sometimes on a superficial level of headlines about what’s eating up our time. 278.RainbowsOn the other hand, I regaled my mom with her faraway grandchild’s antics via email, and she would write back as soon as she read it several time zones later. My mom even babysat from almost 5,000 miles away. She and the kid would get on Skype, and talk. They would draw pictures and hold them up to the camera to show each other. I would be shooed away during these sessions, with a curt, “We are TALKING!” And talk they did. I couldn’t always hear the exact words, but they came in a steady stream, punctuated by plenty of laughter.

My dad preferred snail mail. I would get a thick envelope from time to time, every bit of every page filled with his distinctive writing, which got shakier and shakier. The topics were stream of conscious—certainly his mind worked faster than his hand, and by the time he had scratched out a sentence, he was already paragraphs beyond. He always signed off with “I love you and always will.” Always.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen my siblings or old friends, on the rare times when the stars align so we can get on the phone despite the transatlantic scheduling challenges, we pick up as if we’d last seen each other just a few days ago. The details don’t matter. I love them deeply, fiercely, and that’s all that it takes to keep the connection.IMG_3627 2This post is part of the group “By Invitation Only,” which this month is discussing connections. For other points of view, please visit Daily Plate of Crazy, where you can find not only D.A. Wolf’s sensory take but also links to other By Invitation Only participants. And tell me about the connections that are important to you.