Truffles Are Always a Good Idea

img_0685Of all the mushrooms, nay, of all the ingredients, that impart a deep, complex flavor to foods, truffles reign. They magically multiply flavor, while adding a mysterious earthiness that’s almost addictive. And the perfume! It’s like a walk in the forest after the rain, but with a seductive muskiness as well.

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At the markets here in Aude, the truffles are inspected. I wrote about them here.

Maybe because they’re rare, expensive and have a short season, truffles don’t often appear on lists of umami ingredients. (Umami is the Japanese term for the fifth taste, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter, which some people scoff doesn’t exist, but obviously I don’t agree with them.) This list does mention truffles, far below dried shiitake mushrooms, so consider them a substitute if you want to make these recipes and can’t get your hands on a truffle. Having grown up with rubbery canned, I hated all mushrooms for years, but I eventually learned to love fresh mushrooms and correctly cooked ones. And, minced and mixed and nearly invisible, they can add a sophisticated je ne sais quoi to recipes.

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At the Talairan truffle market, preparing a tasting of steak tartare au couteau (prepared by mincing, not grinding, the meat), topped with truffle shavings.

41.truffes talairan2 2A little, golf-ball-size truffle goes a long way. We got one just before Christmas and used it on oeufs brouillés, risotto and, for the Carnivore, magret de canard–duck breast–in brandy sauce with truffles and mushrooms. It adorned our meals for over a week. Not bad for a €30 splurge (the price this year was €1,000 a kilogram, down from €1,200 three years ago!)

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Truffle #1, from Moussoulens. Truffle #2, with another recipe, coming soon.
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Duck breast getting flambéed. Tip: the sauce needs to be very hot, and the brandy needs to have a high proof. The Soberano that he used was only 35 proof, and he had to try again with stronger stuff. It gives flavor without the bite of alcohol, which burns off. Video here.
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Don’t think for a minute that recent vegetarian converts had duck!. Our kid made sautéed (but not flambéed) tofu in a Sriracha sauce. No truffles.

Just as the movie stars on the red carpet wear dresses that don’t hide the borrowed diamonds that are dripping from their necks, so, too, dishes that work best with truffles are ones that let the black diamonds, as they’re called, shine. Mild things–eggs, rice, potatoes, polenta…Usually the truffle market includes a huge iron pan–really huge, like three feet across–of brouillade, or oeufs brouillés, kind of like scrambled eggs. Very easy. For extra truffle flavor, put the eggs (in shell) and the truffle in a tightly sealed container–the eggs will absorb the perfume of the truffle.

An omelette, which is fine for one, maybe two, but not great in the face of a crowd. With a brouillade you can cook all the eggs at once. Drop them into a bowl or directly into a cold skillet with butter. Do not beat them! How many? Well, how many does each person want to eat? Two? Three? Dump them all in at once.img_0676Set the heat to low, very low, and break up the eggs gently with a spatula. Keep stirring IN ONE DIRECTION. If there is one thing to remember about French cooking, it’s that you must always stir in one direction–for cakes, for chocolate mousse, for whatever. A little salt and pepper. Keep stirring over low heat. It takes forever, like risotto. The traditional way to make brouillade is over a bain marie, or double boiler, which takes even longer, so don’t complain.img_0680If you have a truffle, then, before you get started, melt some butter. I made this several times, and (unintentionally) browning the butter was even better. Turn off the heat. Drop in some slivers of truffle and let it infuse while you cook the eggs. Don’t cook the truffle.img_0679When the eggs start to “take” or come together, they’re done. They aren’t drippy/snotty (such eggs are called baveux in French–drooling), nor are they fluffy or dry. Similar to risotto, they are creamy, yet there’s no cream.img_0682Then stir in the truffle-infused butter.img_0683Serve immediately with more truffle on top.img_0684Fresh local truffles are one of the more convincing reasons to travel here in winter. Yes, there are summer truffles, but the tuber melanosporum is far more pungent. Are you team truffle?

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Sprouting in Winter

p1100124Eating fresh greens can be a challenge in winter, especially if you favor locally grown produce. Around here, even lettuce survives because we rarely get frost and almost never a hard freeze. But if you are in harsher climes and want to add some fresh crunch plus vitamins to your salads, consider growing sprouts.

Back in the hippy dippy days of the ’70s, my mom experimented with growing sprouts. The contraption was environmentally awful plastic and the process was way too complicated. I think it was for soybean sprouts, which were extremely exotic at the time. I think we did it once, maybe twice. Then it joined the yogurt maker and other good intentions in the basement.p1100091My all-natural sister-in-law presented me a sprout kit over a year ago, and it has gotten a good workout, especially in winter. It’s from Nature et Découvertes, and has a pleasing design–an elegant glass container with a metal mesh insert. That’s all. p1100087All it takes is a single teaspoon of alfalfa seeds (called luzerne in French). You can use other seeds as well–red cabbage, radish, cilantro…high in vitamins!p1100093You soak the seeds for half an hour in a cup of cold water.p1100096Then spread them over the mesh so they’re in a single layer.p1100103Fill the glass bowl with water up to the mesh.

Wait. You have to change the water every day until you’ve eaten all your sprouts.p1100120It takes only a couple of days to have a crop. We pull out what we need to add to salads or garnish a plate, and the rest keeps growing. We eat the whole thing, but some people cut off the roots.p1100062The process didn’t work so well in summer–it gets too hot and the water goes bad too quickly. But in summer there are so many other fresh things to eat.

I love having a microgarden of microgreens growing on my countertop. They make me smile. However, where did this word “microgreens” come from? What was wrong with “sprouts”?

I like knowing that no chemicals are used. Plus they’re about as fresh as you can get.

Have you grown sprouts? How do you keep your cooking fresh in winter? Do you have any tales of trends from decades ago that are back?p1100126

Finger Food Feast

IMG_0453Last weekend, we had a bunch of friends over for a little party. Too many people to put around a table, but it’s fun to get everybody together and not just in summer, when there’s plenty of space outside.

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It only looks like a lot of glasses.

We kept it smaller than the Fête de la Lumière last year, inviting about 20 people. The menu was similar but hey, we can’t rest on our laurels! Make new friends but keep the old…and that goes for recipes, too.Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 9.41.26 PMAs usual, I made a spreadsheet. This is so helpful for making a shopping list. I duplicated last year’s, and just deleted or added dishes as needed. So the big work is the first time, and then you just have to tweak.

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Chili…so delicious!

This time, the big course was vegetarian chili. I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe and it was a hit. I did not, however, roast the sweet potatoes. Are you kidding? Everybody knows chili is better on Day 2, so I made it the day before. I feared the sweet potatoes would be cooked to mush even if they went in raw. I doubled the recipe, and while we had leftovers, there wasn’t all that much extra–lunch for me and the kid for just two days after. The French famously dislike spicy food, and this wasn’t spicy at all; we had a bottle of Tabasco on the side for those who were adventurous.IMG_0450We served the chili with cornbread (3/4 cup butter; 2 eggs, 1.5 cups buttermilk mixed/ 1 cup cornmeal, 3/4 cup white flour, 1/4 tsp baking powder; 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt; one can (a little more than a cup) of corn. Mix the dry, mix the wet, mix the two together. Bake at 400F/200C for about 25 minutes–check halfway in and turn if one side is browning faster than the other). Big hit.

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Deviled eggs, aka oeufs mimosa, and Thai chicken wings.
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The Thai drumsticks…something a little offbeat is always welcome. 

As usual, there were deviled eggs, Thai chicken wings and drumsticks (baked in the oven at 400F/200C the day before, then reheated in batches) with peanut sauce, crudités with ranch dressing, and homemade hummus (1 big can of chickpeas, about 400 g, rinsed; one clove of garlic, some (maybe 1/4 cup?) olive oil, tahini (about 1/4 cup) and lemon juice to thin it out). The difference between homemade hummus and store-bought is night and day, and homemade is so easy.IMG_0439To go with the hummus, the kid made (at the last minute!) some rosemary cheese sablés. Kind of this recipe, but without the olives, which the kid hates, and instead with fresh rosemary from the garden. Doubled the recipe and they disappeared. They mostly were eaten plain, but they were available for the hummus, as were baguettes from the bakery.

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Mystery meatballs. Mystery as in no recipe, just made on the fly.

I wanted to recreate the meatballs I made last year, which were a big hit, but I realized the recipe I had saved I didn’t use last time; I think I made something vaguely Italian. This time I had hoisin sauce, but I made up the recipe on the fly: ground pork, LOTS of fresh minced onion, a couple of eggs, some breadcrumbs to stick. The onion is essential for moist, tasty meatballs that don’t get hard. I baked the meatballs in the oven and didn’t even need to turn them. Bake them on a cookie sheet at 400F/200C only until they’re just cooked, then put them into a glass dish for reheating; they’ll brown up more.  A hot oven is good for cooking them fast without drying them out.

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Meatballs and chicken, ready to be warmed in the oven.

Half the table was given over to charcuterie, per the Carnivore. The cheese assortment was barely touched in light of the rest of the bounty.IMG_0418Rather than cheese, people skipped straight to dessert: chocolate crinkle cookies, a nut sheet cake (cut into squares) and, of course, Christmas cookies. Our friend brought his grandma’s famous chocolate mousse. Quelle délice! And, when everybody could eat no more but didn’t want to leave, the clementines were passed around.

We do like to use real plates and silverware. It’s easier to hold, feels fancier and, after so many years with the same dishes, is more economical and environmental.IMG_0424I didn’t dress up, but I do have a fun dress that I got during the soldes a while back. It’s silk, so it’s light enough to wear in summer; it has sleeves, so it’s OK for winter. It’s so, so simple, yet…IMG_0427Do you see the pattern?IMG_0430Yes, tiny Eiffel towers and gold stars in a black sky of stars. So appropriate.

One of my favorite hostess gifts that people brought was this box of savory toast spreads. We already tested a couple of them and they are delicious. Bio, too (organic). IMG_0474I think I covered all the recipes, but if you have questions, let me know! Lots of good stuff, with big impact with little effort or budget.

Party Prep

IMG_0311Christmas was just yesterday but I am so over it already. It was lovely and quiet and cozy, but even though our celebration was low-key, I feel like I’m coming off a sugar high from the saccharine consumerism everywhere. It permeates the air. It’s like second-hand smoke.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the decorations, the carols, the food. We joined the no-gift movement, so there was no pressure for shopping. We spent Christmas afternoon baking cookies. For Christmas dinner (on Christmas Eve), we ate favorite dishes–ris de veau  (veal sweetbread–the thalmus to be specific) in a mushroom cream sauce for the Carnivore and tofu turkey loaf with risotto for me and our kid. The Carnivore even flambéed his ris de veau. Cut no corners.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, we watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” AND the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Childrens’ shows were so classy in the 1960s, with jazz on the soundtracks. Even the Grinch song has a jazzy feel.

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A mocha bûche de noël…from a bakery. Very good!

We are gearing up for a little party on Friday with our neighbors–about 18 people, so too many for a sit-down dinner. Instead, we are hosting an apéritif dinatoire, or appetizer buffet, as we did last year for the Fête de la Lumière, which came and went earlier this month without us getting our act together.

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Count on a wine region to work the local specialty into holiday decorations.

In fact, today I must get the chicken wings in their marinade and make a few dishes. I can do the crudités and the ranch dressing while our kid decorates the cookies that we made yesterday. Thinking about buffets I have known and loved, I realize that while cheesy potatoes or green bean casserole are delicious, they aren’t in the French style. For one thing, it’s hard to eat with a knife and fork from a plate perched on your lap. So almost everything in our buffet is cold (except the wings and meatballs) and made in single servings that are easy to pick up and eat with one’s fingers.

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The reindeer lights just above the fake cacti made me smile.

The plates are dessert size, which is easier to hold with one hand. They’re real china, not plastic, and have gotten a lot of use in the 20 years I’ve had them. We noticed a happy side effect–the small plates mean people get up to serve themselves again from the buffet. And they often sit down in a different spot, which encourages mingling. Only the eldest member of our gang stayed in one seat for the entire evening; everybody else played a kind of musical chairs.

I’ll try to get some photos and will share recipes next week, because it’s unlikely I’ll post on Friday.

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The Carcassonne Christmas market and produce market hip by jowl on Saturday.

How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?

 

 

 

Butter No Parsnips

IMG_0059Continuing my mission to try out the incredible cornucopia of winter vegetables available at the market, we come to parsnips. Panais in French (pah-nay). Have you had them?

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Colored carrots…cousins of parsnips.

As I noted last week, these white cousins of the carrot make regular appearances in baby food in France. Native to the Mediterranean region, these ancient vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals (especially potassium, calcium, vitamin C and Vitamin K1). They grow throughout the winter down here where the ground doesn’t freeze, and for folks up north, back in the pre-fridge days, they would be stored in a root cellar for months. Today, they are forgotten or ignored, though the French seem to still enjoy them.

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Parsley root…another old-time winter vegetable.

The first thing that struck me about parsnips was the perfume–very strong yet pleasant. I wondered about the flavor, but that turned out to be mild and a little sweet, a bit like celery root. Parsnips can be served raw–sliced or grated in a salad, like carrots. They also can be roasted, boiled, sautéed, braised, you name it. They can be served whole, sliced or puréed. If you can do it to a carrot, you can do it to a parsnip.

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Celery root. Very popular grated, as a salad, with a creamy dressing. Typical school cafeteria fare.

However, they get bigger than carrots, and when they do, there’s sometimes a tough core that’s better to cut out. You can peel them but if you have a good vegetable brush, a scrubbing will do. Either douse them with lemon juice or cook them right away or they will oxidize and turn a bit brown, as potatoes and apples do, and similarly it doesn’t affect how edible they are but makes them not as appetizing. They don’t turn brown as fast as, say, avocados, and I skipped the lemon juice as it took little time to cut up three parsnips (one large per person) and toss them in oil.

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You can see the woody core, which I removed.

I was serving them with a white bean gratin, so I wanted to cook both dishes in the oven. I cut them into sticks like fries, tossed them with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread them on a baking sheet on the upper rack in a 400 F/200 C oven. I considered adding garlic and parsley, but we already were having dishes with those. When they started to brown, I put in the dish of beans on the lower rack. I took the parsnips out to turn them but found I didn’t need to–they browned all around. It took about 15 minutes, but I waited longer, distracted by the sautéed spinach, and some got overdone.

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They brown slowly then quickly. Watch them!

In retrospect, although the parsnips were yummy and we all took second helpings, they would have looked better with something other than white bean gratin (a big can of white beans puréed with some of their liquid and one clove of garlic, spread out in a small glass baking dish and topped with grated parmesan). Two white foods in one meal! We also had spinach (green) and some hard-to-get mushrooms that I scored at the market. (I don’t know whether it’s because of the weather or overpicking, but wild mushrooms have been scarce at the market, and the price for lactaires is now €20 a kilogram, vs. €13 two years ago.)

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OMG these are good.

Although they look like and have a similar texture to potatoes as oven fries, parsnips are very low in carbohydrates.  I’m not looking to eliminate any food group (except refined sugar), but I do find that on my plate potatoes tend to turn into a butter and salt delivery system that I try to rein in.

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Lactaires delicieux, aka rousillous.

In this case, the parsnips were lightly coated with olive oil, to help brown them and keep them from sticking. Butter no parsnips! Actually the phrase is fine words butter no parsnips–butter is the verb, like butter up somebody, and it means the same thing here, that flattery gets you nowhere.

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Another neglected vegetable, often substituted for potatoes: sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, aka topinambours, which is so delightful to say. Very sweet.

If you serve parsnips, the compliments won’t be empty.

Baby Meals in France

IMG_0005We recently enjoyed a visit from a Parisian friend and her 13-month-old, and the baby’s meals struck me as very French. Our own child was never so lucky. We moved here when our kid was three months old, and I pretty much relied on family and friends back in the U.S. for advice. When I started to make friends here, I realized that the whole baby thing was different, but this was many years ago and I had mostly forgotten about it.

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Left, risotto with small vegetables and rosemary. Right, risotto with mushrooms (chunky). Both for 12 months old. Both for night–see the stars?

The biggest difference is that French baby foods are marked by time of day. Protein is for midday and never in the evening. I vaguely recall French moms telling me this back in the day. I searched around a bit to see whether baby foods sold in, say, the U.S. were marked for evening or whether nutritional recommendations said anything about protein in the evening, but I found nothing (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). I considered calling up a pediatrician, but (1) they don’t have time and (2) there’s a broad range of advice out there. My friend, in fact, was horrified at what her friends feed their children of the same age–cereal in the formula to get the kid to sleep at night, sweets, etc. All I can say is that if there were only one way to raise a child, there wouldn’t be 7 billion people on the Earth today.

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For lunch. Notice also that the baby here is looking lively, whereas the one at the top is sleeping.

There are two arguments about protein at night: that too much protein is taxing on the kidneys, which are delicate at such a young age, and that protein is hard to digest and will disturb sleep. The latter argument also applies to adults, and in fact quite a few of my friends have supper (souper) of soup. And that’s it. They eat a big meal at noon, not at night. All the ones who do this are very trim and fit, by the way, even though they are retired.

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Seen at the supermarket: “My good night dinner.” Vegetable risotto (with smooth texture), left, and lasagne gratin with celery root (not the green stalks! “melting morsels” of the root).

Another thing is that French kids don’t drink milk. Babies get formula in bottles, but when they get bigger, they might have hot chocolate with milk for breakfast and that’s it. In France, McDonald’s Happy Meals don’t have milk among the drink choices, but it’s typical in the U.S., even in school lunches. French kids are expected to drink water (and yes, there exist French parents who give their kids juice and sugary sodas).

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For day: Pot au feu is a kind of soup with beef and vegetables, but the vegetables are whole or, if cut, left in large pieces, so they aren’t all mixed up.

And then there are the menus for babies. Get a load of these:

Navarin de petits légumes, agneau français–a kind of ragoût with lamb and “small vegetables”: carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and mushrooms. This was marked for lunch.

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Tenderness of little vegetables with rice. You can tell it’s for night by the stars and moon. Too cute. The note on the left side says “Suggestion for presentation,” which seems to be humor, since, of course, baby food is puréed.

Patate douce, chataigne, pintade fermière du Poitou–sweet potato, chestnuts and guinea hen from the Poitou department. Also for lunch.

Légumes verts, panais, boulghour–Green vegetables (peas, broccoli, carrots, zucchini, coriander), parsnips, bulgur. For evening.

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“My first vegetables…diversification offer.” Left: carrots, white carrots, parsnips, leeks; right: carrots, green beans, zucchini, pumpkin. For 4-6 months old. LEEKS!!!

Douceur de panais, carotte des Landes, polenta–sweetness of parsnips, carrots from the Landes department, polenta.

Other evening meals included broccoli, green beans and rice; and fondue of carrots, sweet corn and quinoa.

Seriously, when is the last time YOU ate parsnips?

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Applesauce with quince.

The snacks included apple with chestnuts; apple with quince; and mirabelle plums with apple. For the all-important quatre heure–four o’clock snack.

My very clever friend orders the Babybio meals online and has them delivered–smart move to not have to carry groceries in Paris. She even had some delivered here.

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At the left, “for exploring from 12 months,” “for savoring from 8 months,” “for getting started from 4/6 months,” “evening dishes” in purple, organic.

To refresh my memory, I strolled through the baby aisle at the supermarket. The shelves are marked by age AND there’s a separate section for evening meals.

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Top: summer vegetables with spaghetti; bottom: vegetables and Basque-style poultry.

All I can say, is these kids eat well. I wouldn’t mind Basque-style poultry with vegetables myself!

So: similar? different? surprising? not?

 

 

A World of Finger Food

P1100529So many cultures have snacks or appetizers that involve stuffing wrapped with pastry or something similar. Greece has kreatopetes. India has samosas. East Africa has its own take on samosas, with spicy ground meat. South America and Spain have empanadas. Asian cuisines have various kinds of egg rolls and spring rolls. And Morocco has briouates–envelopes.

We had them a few times in Casablanca, but the best were at the home of friends, who baked, rather than fried, them. (Actually everything we ate there was heavenly.) When we got home, I had to try to make them myself.

I made both chicken and beef fillings, because the Carnivore considers chicken unworthy. While I gave these Moroccan spices, it’s clear from the international list at the top that you can make them however you like. With holidays coming up, it’s nice to have some easy-yet-impressive appetizers or snacks that you can make ahead.

You can fold the briouates into triangles or roll them like fat cigars. I did triangles. I used “brick,” which is easier to work with than phyllo/filo (you don’t have to worry about it drying out in seconds), but not quite as light. Although I linked to a recipe for making brick, I bought it ready-made–it’s easy to find here.

I used chicken thighs because all the meat gets pulled off the bone and minced up after cooking. Cooking with the bones adds flavor. I didn’t go so far as to cook with the skin, though. P1100524Chicken Briouates

500 g/1lb. chicken thighs, skin removed if you prefer

1 large onion, minced

3-5 garlic cloves, minced

a handful of pine nuts (if you can afford them!) or slivered almonds

1 carrot, grated–this is my determination to add vegetables to everything, not at all traditional

1 teaspoon ras el hanout (easy to find in stores here but you can make it yourself, too)

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 package feuilles de brick

1/4 cup melted butter (you might use more, but melt it a little at a time)

Olive oil

Salt, pepper

2 eggs

Drizzle some olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep skillet–just enough to cover the bottom. Brown the chicken. Add the onions and garlic. When the onions start to get translucent, add the spices and carrots and stir to mix well. Add a good cup of water. Cover tightly with a lid and let it simmer until the chicken falls apart easily with a fork. If there’s still a lot of liquid, take out the chicken (see below) and cook the remaining mixture uncovered, stirring often so it doesn’t scorch.

Remove the chicken to let it cool so you can pull the meat from the bones. If pieces of chicken are large, tear them up or set them aside to chop up. Return the chicken to the onion mix in the skillet, and stir in the eggs. Cook it over low heat for a couple of minutes, just to set the egg a little. Let all that cool.

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Tastes better than it looks. No wonder it’s a filling!

Heat up the oven to 180 C/350 F.

Using scissors, cut the rounds of brick according to the size you prefer–if you want big briouates, you can go with half. I cut each brick into four strips (about 7.5 cm/3 inches) to make dainty briouates.

Have a baking sheet ready (I use silicone mats for easier cleanup; you can put parchment paper, but I don’t think briouates pose a sticky cleanup mess). You also need a clean space for folding–I used a cutting board. And you need the melted butter and a pastry brush.

To fold, you have several videos: This one, or this one, or this one that has interesting music. They all do it differently. The first one folds the half-rounds of brick lenthwise to make a strip. The others cut the brick into strips. I did strips because doubling over a half-round seemed like way too much crust.

Swipe each strip with butter–not much, just enough to make them crisp up in the oven. Deposit a spoonful of filling at one end of the strip, leaving about a centimeter/quarter-inch flap at the end. Fold over to make a triangle; as you continue (anybody who was a scout will recognize that it’s like folding a flag), the flap will tuck in. Make sure you push the filling all the way to the tip of the triangle; you can add more filling if needed. When you get to the end of the strip, fold the excess or cut it into a triangle (like the first video) and tuck it inside. In some videos, they glue the ends with a dab of flour/water mix. But I didn’t find that necessary.

You can bake these fairly close together because they don’t expand. They will be brown and crispy in 15-20 minutes. About 10 minutes in, turn them over.

P1100527To make them ahead, make sure you don’t overdo the browning in the first place. They are best reheated in the oven for 5-10 minutes–it keeps them from getting soggy. While the folding takes time, it isn’t difficult. As recipes go, briouates are a sure-fire success.

Recipe? Schmecipe.

IMG_6527Do you follow recipes to the letter? Not me. I consider recipes to be general guidance, less GPS and more “head kind of north.”

I fearlessly replace ingredients willy nilly, depending on what’s at hand. Part of this is because I live a 20-minute drive from the nearest supermarket (which is closed from 8 p.m. Saturday until 9 a.m. Monday), and my village grocery has excellent fruits, vegetables and cheeses, but not a huge selection of anything else (with even shorter opening hours). Forget about corn tortillas, curry powder or whole-wheat flour.

This post is intended to empower you as a cook. One of the best things you can do for yourself, health-wise and probably otherwise (budget, for example), is to cook your own meals. It’s the only way to know what you are putting in your body. Ideally, it would consist of single-word ingredients, or close to it.

Here’s what we did under less-than-ideal conditions. We recently had some visitors over for short-notice dinner. The plans were solidified late Saturday night for Sunday. That meant no shopping. Increasingly there are supermarkets here open on Sunday mornings, and one nearby town has a Sunday produce market, so if push came to shove, we could run out and buy what we needed. But I wasn’t in a position that weekend to drive around the region.P1080346Here’s the menu: Christine’s onion tart (thank goodness for UHT cream!) for the starter; lemon chicken, reminiscent of a dish I had by luck in Nîmes, when the Carnivore and I were driving down to our then-new place near Carcassonne, and we stopped for lunch amid complete havoc in Nîmes, which was in the middle of a feria. We parked where we could and found a tiny bar, every inch stacked to the ceiling with cases of wine, except for two tables. A crusty-looking local was at one table, and we grabbed the other. There were two choices on the “menu,” which was verbal only; the Carnivore of course went for the red meat and I chose poulet au citron, which was divine.

This is of course typical in France, where you can bumble into a situation where everything weighs against eating well, yet you have a meal you dream about 15+ years later. Oh, and it was cheap.

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Before cooking

So, lemon chicken, which I kind of but not really followed a mix of three or four online recipes. With locally grown rice from Marseillette. And roasted tomatoes. Because…tomatoes! If I had thought it through better, I would have made a green vegetable, because it would have been a larger palette of colors.

I looked at our larder and was sorely disappointed by the cheese. Our village grocery, as I said, has an amazing selection of cheese, all the more so for a place serving such a tiny population. (Kudos to the good taste of my neighbors, the grocery’s clients.) However, they were closed for the weekend. Rather than serve the decent wedge of a single cheese (skimpy) or a plate of a bunch of already-hacked-into cheeses (tacky), I assembled the ingredients for a cheese soufflé. Super easy, and it would bake during the meal.

My private chef kid made individual ramekins of crème au chocolat. As I recall, the reason we didn’t make moelleux au chocolat or something like that was that we didn’t have enough eggs, what with the soufflé. Crème au chocolat is basically ganache–chocolate and cream.P1090022We prepared everything in advance and I just had the soufflé to throw together while our guests had an apéro.

Back to the non-recipe. At the Saturday market, I saw some very perky blettes, or Swiss chard, and thought about the little pillows of bliss whose recipe I shared here. However, at least one family member can’t have nuts. Already in the version I had shared, I had replaced very pricey (no, outrageously expensive) pinenuts with almonds. Now I was going to substitute big time.

A whopping 66.66% of the members of our family are beyond horrified by the recent U.N. report on climate change. These family members had already been leaning toward less meat, if not all the way toward meatless. The report made these family members even more committed to reducing waste and to eating less meat, because at least 33.33% of those family members are likely to live far beyond 2030.IMG_6518So I decided to put the vegetables at the center of the plate by replacing the nuts with white beans. I didn’t have any gruyère or parmesan and just used emmental, which is the go-to cheese of the French, put on everything, including pizza. Some supermarkets have an entire aisle just for emmental in all its forms. I also replaced the cream with coconut milk. In fact, it might be easier to say what I didn’t replace: Swiss chard and onions. Oh, and an egg to bind.

The Swiss chard was sold by the bunch, and I got 8 stems for €1.50. It was a lot. So I used two eggs, not one. And I opened a bigger package of UHT coconut milk instead of the cream, but then I didn’t use it all. And I didn’t measure the grated cheese–I just took a couple of handfuls.

Why tell you this? Because unless you are baking a cake or or something, YOU CAN DO WHAT YOU WANT. Baking is special–it’s chemistry, it’s magical, it’s alchemy. You’re turning a liquid into a solid. That is absolutely amazing, don’t you think? But you have to get the proportions just so or you’ll be disappointed.

Everything else is more forgiving, and you shouldn’t sweat the details. It’s always good to do a recipe more or less by the letter the first time, but as you cook, you get less worried about the details, and more interested by the ideas of the flavors. It’s liberating.

One of our recent AirBnB guests told me about a tiny new restaurant in Carcassonne, La Table de la Bastide. She raved about it. “The chef is so creative,” she said. “There was a mix of strawberries with olives! And the olives had a hint of licorice!” That does sound creative. I am not sure whether I would love this particular dish, but I appreciate the exploration of flavors. And  you, too, have the right, as someone who eats probably three times a day, to explore flavors. Why not? The worst that happens? You don’t make it again.

I will tell you how I made my white bean Swiss chard pillows of bliss, but I must confess something else. I saw the bound bunches of Swiss chard at Saturday’s market, at the stand of a family who grow everything themselves. Once, years ago, I asked them for some vegetable, I don’t even remember what, and the mother of the clan verbally slapped me upside the head, saying, “That is NOT in season!” Rather than deter me, it made me all the more loyal to their stand.

P1090065I had seen Swiss chard lately around the market, but it was a little tired and didn’t inspire me. This Swiss chard was very perky, so crisp I could almost hear it snapping as I walked past. It called to me. So I bought it, dreaming of pillows of bliss.

At home, I found plenty of bug holes. And I was happy. In fact, I rejoice in bug holes, because they are proof that this wonderful family of vegetable farmers doesn’t spray with insecticides. They don’t claim to be bio–organic–which requires a huge amount of paperwork, and when the French complain that something is a lot of paperwork, look out. But, like so many local growers–like so many locals–they are cheapskates who aren’t going to spend money (on bio certification or on insecticides) unless they absolutely have to. A few bugs? So what!

On the other hand, when I dipped the elephant-ear leaves into boiling water, they tended to tear apart where there were holes. So my little bundles of bliss were a bit smaller than I had expected.

I don’t care. I am glad to eat smaller bundles of bliss if it means they are chemical-free. I’ll just eat more of them.

Oh, another thing I didn’t have was chives for tying them up. Nice if you have chives, but if you don’t it really doesn’t matter.

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The Carnivore gets five stars for presentation. Sorry for the low light but CANDLES.

May I add that just after I wrote this (in advance OF COURSE), we experienced high water and invited over some neighbors whose yard and basement had been flooded. They had spent the night of hellish rain hauling their stuff out of the basement and dropping in into the kitchen. I stopped by to see how they were and discovered the situation, so insisted they not have to cook but come for dinner. But what to serve? Totally last minute! Well, we had some animal flesh (the Carnivore is always ready with that), and a beautiful starter of pâté en croute that we had on hand and that the Carnivore arranged, MORE roasted tomatoes (because until there are no more tomatoes, we have a stock!) and … LEFTOVERS. Yes, we had the leftover white-bean-replacement pillows of bliss that I had made the day before. If that isn’t reason to raise your leftovers game, I don’t know…

Meatless Main Dish Pillows of Bliss

a bunch of Swiss chard (this bunch was pretty big)

two onions, diced

two eggs

20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream or, as I did, coconut milk, because WHY NOT

a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère

two cups (about 800 g total; 500 g (about half a pound) drained) of white beans. I used a can (lazy! or, actually, impetuous and not planning enough ahead to soak and cook dry beans)

1 tsp of oregano

salt and pepper

olive oil

Optional: chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!

Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit).IMG_6515Chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.

Blanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and dunk them in cold water. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.

IMG_6514Guess what? When I did this, I forgot to dunk the leaves in cold water and everything was fine anyway. I just set the soggy blobs on a tea towel until I could stuff them.

Beat the egg and the coconut milk/cream/whatever in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the beans and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed. It sets in the oven.

Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito.

IMG_6521Set them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).

Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.

IMG_6531If you follow a recipe to the letter, it probably will turn out pretty good. But even if you miss a step or two, or substitute ingredients, it probably will turn out pretty good, as long as you aren’t baking, in which case Follow the Directions to the Letter. But for those of us just trying to get something nutritious and not too boring on the table, break loose and don’t worry if you don’t have everything or if you forget a step. Your diners probably won’t know unless you tell them. What happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen.

 

 

 

Truth and Fries

IMG_6422I am an unabashed francophile, but sometimes the credit for things thought of as French belongs farther north. 

The singer Jacques Brel? Belgian. Hergé, creator of Tintin? Belgian. Basketball player and ex of Eva Longoria, Tony Parker? Belgian. Jazz musician Django Reinhardt? Belgian. Audrey Hepburn and Diane von Furstenburg? Belgian. Martin Margiela? Belgian.

French fries? Belgian. Though there’s of course a dispute about that. All I will say is that, regardless of their origin, fries and chocolates are better in Belgium. 

Actually, potatoes and chocolate both came from the Americas (Peru and Mexico, respectively) and aren’t native to Europe at all. Back in the 1700s, potatoes were considered hog feed and in fact banned from being grown in France because they were thought to cause leprosy. A French scientist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier promoted potatoes, and they took off when they saved France from famine during a bad wheat harvest. 

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Initial cooking. Scary!

The wily Parmentier (who also was one of the first to get sugar from sugar beets and who ran a smallpox vaccination campaign for Napoleon) made potatoes desirable by posting armed guards at his garden. There’s nothing like making something hard to get to make people want it. Parmentier told his guards to accept bribes from people wanting potatoes. The guards disappeared at night so people could steal potatoes. 

If you see a dish with “parmentier” in the name, it has potatoes. Hachis parmentier is ground beef topped with mashed potatoes, similar to moussaka or cottage pie. Saumon parmentier is salmon topped with thin rounds of potatoes (layers alternated with cream).

Back to fries. When I first moved to Brussels and was looking for a place to rent, I learned that apartments came either fully furnished or so unfurnished that they didn’t have stoves, refrigerators or light fixtures. However, I visited a couple of apartments that had BUILT-IN deep fryers in the kitchen counters!!!! As if a stove is optional, but you can’t live without a fryer.

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Take them out when they make noise when shaken. Let them rest until the temperature of the fryer rises.

My husband is Belgian (and loves Brussels sprouts…and Belgian endive) and is genetically disposed to making some amazing fries. I have never deep-fried anything in my life, so I cede that territory to him. One day, we were eating dinner (steak tartare with fries) and the cooling fryer was grumbling loudly nearby in the open kitchen. And then it exploded. Grease went all over the stove hood, the stove, the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the sofa on the other side of the counter in our open-plan space. Total mess. It only reinforced my worst fryer fears.

Happily for me, he’s the expert. Here are some of his secrets to delicious fries.

Use beef fat; he likes the brand “Blanc de Boeuf.” It isn’t sold in France, so we smuggle it back from Belgium. Good luck with that part. However, it’s the most important thing, what keeps fries crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, without becoming soggy, which happens with oil.blanc-de-boeufYou can use frozen fries, but to get that crispy/moelleux (tender) combo, get thin ones. My expert likes allumettes, or matchsticks. Buy small packages so you don’t have leftovers—open packages in the freezer tend to collect ice and that will splatter in the fat, no matter how tightly you’ve sealed the package. Don’t waste money on fancy brands. Potatoes are potatoes….although we have friends who cut up fresh potatoes from their garden for their fries—that is another level of yum. Be aware that there are different varieties of fresh potatoes, with some marked for frites, some for the oven, some for boiling/steaming, some for rissoler (skillet frying like hash browns)… They have names like bintje (how Belgian is that one, and the kind for fries), charlotte, agata, franceline, manon, nicola, ratte, corne de gatte…it IS curious how many have female names!

Heat the fryer to 150 C (300 F). Plunge the fries in the fryer basket into the fat. Cook until, when you lift the basket and shake it, the fries make noise.

At that point, take the basket out (your fryer should have a way for the basket to perch above the fat, so the grease from the fries drips off and back into the fryer). 

Turn the fryer temperature up to 170 C (340 F). During this time, the fries get a rest. This is the second-most important tip after the beef fat.

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The second rest.

 When the fryer hits the right temperature, plunge the fries into the fat again for about two minutes—until they’re as golden or dark brown as you like them. Then let the fries drip/rest again before turning them into a bowl for serving, with a little salt.

The Belgians also love sauces with their fries. At the roadside friteries, which are somewhat but not always bigger than foodtrucks, the list of sauces is bigger than the main menu (which may include sandwich kebabs or the cholesterol bomb mitraillette (machine gun), which has fries IN THE SANDWICH). Here are some: mayonnaise; ketchup; cocktail (a mix of mayo and ketchup, often with whisky if homemade); tartare (mayo with herbs and pickles); andalouse (my favorite—mayo base with tomato, spices, garlic, shallots, red peppers and hot peppers); américaine (onions, tomatoes, white wine, cognac, cayenne and butter); samouraï (mayo, ketcup and harissa); pickles (cauliflower (!!!), pickles and pickled onions, honey, white vinegar, spices, mustard, ginger, curcuma and sugar); Brasil (tomato sauce with pineapple and spices). 

mitraillette
A mitraillette. There is a baguette, meat, and other goodies under the heap of fries.

At a friterie, your fries will be served in a paper cone, the sauce dumped on top, served with a little fork. Check out the pack-of-fries handbag, with its own little red fork, from Delvaux, the Belgian luxury-goods company (a Belgian Hermès, you could say). Don’t miss the so Belgian, so surrealist little film. Of course, the frite bag is named for Namur, said to be where frites were invented.IMG_6421

Picking Wine

P1080475At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of grape harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. spilled-grapesWithin the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.P1080437

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.machine-caunesLots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.grapesLet me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).P1080704If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.P1080705Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.amid-vines-villalierBefore the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left).  Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.hand-picked-1