Where did champagne come from? Not from Champagne or Dom Pérignon! The first sparkling wine can be traced to the 1500s in the area around Limoux, just south of Carcassonne. It was first mentioned in a document from 1544 (the town of Limoux was ordering some!), but it was in 1531 that monks from the nearby Saint-Hilaire abbey figured out how to make sparkling wine on purpose–previously it had just been by accident and not considered a good thing, either. Dom Pérignon wasn’t even born until 1638, nearly 100 years later.
My friends who recently visited are fans of champagne, and I just had to give them a tasting of blanquette de Limoux–in fact, it was the first stop on their first full day here. We went to Sieur d’Arques in Limoux, the biggest house and sponsor of the Toques et Clochers fundraising festival I wrote about here. Sieur d’Arques was a real person, the lord of the region in the 1500s. We tasted the range of Premiere Bulle wines–named for being the “first bubble”–sticking to the brut, or dry, offerings rather than the sweeter ones. The traditional blanquette brut has three kinds of grapes: at least 90% Mauzac, plus Chardonnay and/or Chenin blanc. The grapes are pressed and fermented separately before being mixed and bottled. The magic is in the mix–only those grapes are allowed, and the winemaker can choose whether to add 10% Chardonnay or 10% Chenin blanc to the Mauzac, or a little of each, in some ratio that adds up to 10%. A second fermentation happens in the bottles, over nine to 18 months.
The bottles are stored on their sides until it’s time to put them into riddling racks, almost upside-down, so the sediments move to the neck of the bottles. They are turned–rémuage–then the sediment is disgorged and the bottles are topped up.The méthode ancestrale uses 100% Mauzac grapes. The first fermentation is in vats, then the wine is bottled at the waning moon in March for a second fermentation of only two months, to reach only 6 degrees of alcohol. I’m not a fan of ancestrale, because I find it too sweet.
Then there’s crémant, which is made from a majority of Chardonnay, mixed with another grape–Chenin, Mauzac or Pinot noir (which produces rosé). Crémant has to age for at least 12 months, and Sieur d’Arques ages its crémants for 18-30 months.
Sieur d’Arques isn’t the only maker of blanquette de Limoux. Other large producers include Antech, Aguila, Guinot and Anne de Joyeuse. Here’s a complete list.
Blanquette de Limoux is considerably less expensive than champagne, which, coming from near Paris, became fashionable among the royal court in the 1600s and has enjoyed superior public relations ever since. In the 1600s it would have been a very long, rough journey from Limoux to Paris. Consider this your insider tip for the good stuff whose price hasn’t been jacked up by branding.We did have some champagne, as well, from Chanoine Frères, which is the second-oldest champagne house. It was so fancy it came with a little jacket to keep it cool. It was good, but the blanquette was just as delicious.
Have you had blanquette de Limoux or crémant de Limoux? Or are you sticking with champagne?
On Tuesday, I said goodbye to our latest visitors, a friend of many years and his sister. It was a really good visit, and they claimed they enjoyed it even more than the week they spent in Paris before coming down here. The pace is calmer, the lines are shorter to non-existent, the weather is sunnier, the food is better and there’s no shortage of things to see and do.
As usual, I made a spreadsheet. I gave it to my friends so they would know what was in store each day. It wasn’t about keeping a strict schedule; instead it was to know whether to dress for walking or visiting. For me, it was to group destinations geographically.However, this was overly ambitious. It’s a little bit like a buffet serving only foods you like. You want to taste everything, but it isn’t possible–there’s just too much. Everything looks so conveniently close on a map, but in reality, especially on small roads in the mountains, it takes a long time to get from A to B. Happily, the driving is accompanied by jaw-dropping views, no matter where you go. So you have to pick the best options, which are sometimes just the most realistically accomplished, and really relish them. Here is what we actually accomplished:We started the days a little later than I had expected (totally fine! it’s vacation! but in case they were ready to charge off early, I had a plan), we spent more time than I had expected at each place, and some things ended up just too far to drive. Even though my friends stayed at our apartment l’Ancienne Tannerie in Carcassonne, just a short walk from la Cité, we didn’t go Carcassonne’s main attraction until Saturday afternoon, when other family obligations limited how far we could venture. It was good to have a sight to see that was so close by. We returned to la Cité on Sunday morning to see the museum and to walk around again when there were fewer people. We also didn’t go on Thursday because it was a holiday and was certainly crowded.
We alternated restaurants and home cooking to avoid feeling overfed, but two of the meals at home were copious anyway because we had another visitor–a longtime friend of the Carnivore’s from Belgium. Luckily he spoke good English and my friends were able to get another European perspective in the dinner conversation. We cooked our greatest hits, almost all of the recipes having appeared here on the blog. The cooking portion will get its own post.
If you’re staying in a home or apartment and want to eat in but you don’t have all your recipes or usual utensils, you can pick up prepared dishes at supermarket delis or at butcher shops. We got a cassoulet from the butcher with each round of visitors–just put it in the oven. Couldn’t be easier. And believe me, the local butchers make very good cassoulet. Another thing we picked up was aligot, a cheesy potato dish.
Our friends arrived at lunch time, so the first thing we did was go to eat. I had expected to have a simple sandwich at a café on the square, but they had left their hotel in Paris very early to get to the airport and hadn’t had breakfast. So we went to a little restaurant on Place Carnot, l’Artichaut (The Artichoke). One had duck, the other a macaroni dish with blue cheese and beef, and the Carnivore and I both had steak tartare.
Somehow we managed to work up an appetite by evening to go to our favorite restaurant. Le Clos des Framboisiers was recommended to us shortly after we moved here and it has stayed our favorite spot ever since. The food is always interesting, never ordinary, and both the Carnivore and I (with opposite ideas about food) find offerings we like. The service is impeccable and the setting is gorgeous–it’s in an old stone farmhouse that once was on the edge of town, or even outside it. A housing development has since grown around it–you wind around the maze of streets to a cul de sac, where almost all the customers’ parked cars sport 11 license plates–each département in France has a number, and Aude, where Carcassonne is located, is 11. Even though it’s in walking distance of la Cité, it’s hard to find and has no website, so it remains a locals’ favorite, and you had better reserve. Once you pass behind the tall walls, you’re in another world. There are several rooms, each intimate yet different: One has stone walls, another overlooks the pool, another is all wood, with lots of African and other ethnic art. The diversity of the décor–which changes frequently–make each visit feel fresh. The menu changes frequently, too. We were there in March, and two months later it was different. Here is the latest:Plus there were a starter and a main dish that weren’t on the menu. The only thing missing is a vegetarian option, though I see they make alterations; will ask next time. The menu is prix fixe–apéritif, starter, main dish, cheese and dessert for €32 per person. I think the only reason le Clos des Framboisiers doesn’t have Michelin stars is that the décor is too relaxed. On our early visits, everything clearly came from brocantes, and no two chairs matched. Same with the cutlery. I loved it. Personality! Certainly the food warrants Michelin notice.
My friends thought the restaurant and food were a surprising mix of fancy and casual. The food was delicious, as always, nothing industrial or prepackaged about it. It isn’t a chain, but a restaurant run by the chef and his wife, using locally purchased ingredients. The restaurant felt relaxed, but everybody there was wearing what might be called casual smart. It didn’t seem like a fancy place, but it was so much nicer than, say, Carraba’s or Olive Garden, yet the same price or cheaper for similar menu items, and far less than a chain like Ruth’s Chris. The portions aren’t gigantic–doggy bags are unheard-of here–but even the Carnivore is stuffed to the gills by the end of the evening.
Not to forget there’s a cheese interlude. Because: France.
For some reason, I don’t have photos of all the desserts. There was a lemon sorbet with vodka and pear sorbet with pear liqueur.
I think we were at the table for more than three hours. It never felt long, and any time between courses was a welcome pause to prepare for the rest. Also, the conversation was fantastic. My friend and I had a lot to catch up on, picking up the thread of each other’s lives as if it hadn’t been three years since we last saw each other. I guess when you’ve known each other for more than three decades, such a gap is nothing. And his sister turned out, unsurprisingly, to be my soul sister. It was a total delight to get to know her, yet frustrating, because she wasn’t staying.
Don’t you love making those connections? Where you discover someone who has come to more or less the same point in the world, albeit by another route? The sister and I couldn’t be more different on one hand–she said her goal in life was to be a stay-at-home mom. I put off having children until it was almost too late, rebelling against the pressure to have kids and to accept second-class status in my career because the sacrifices to succeed would be incompatible with family life–for women, not for men, who had no problem having kids and working. Early on in my work life, my supervisor (we’ll call him Kent, his real name) told me that “the problem with America is women like you: white, married, educated and you refuse to have children.” Of course, the real problem is supervisors like Kent, who count the number of hours spent at work rather than the quality of the work done.
The sister was not someone who sought refuge in child-rearing because everything else was too hard. I’ve met more than a few of that type, too–let the men go to work and handle the money, and the women can cook and clean and take care of the children and not worry about anything. Paternalism. If that’s what some want, fine, but don’t impose it on others. Anyway, my friend’s sister was simply passionate about children, and they are endlessly interesting, if energy-sapping. She also loves cooking, in an intellectual way, understanding how the chemistry works. She knows how to make things with her hands: not just food but also textiles. I was impressed. But where we communed was our mutual curiosity about the world. Either you see the world as a troubled, scary place to turn your back on, to shut out, wall off, keep out of your ordered, predictable existence. Or you see the world as a fascinating place, full of adventures and surprises. There are few things as satisfying as presenting such a curious person with a new experience–a painted medieval ceiling, a hidden picnic spot, a gorgeous view, a new food, new drink–and watching them discover it with the enthusiasm of a child unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.
Thanks to my friend and his sister for giving me that joy over the past (too few) days.
The French have the best word for thick, velvety soups: velouté. Even the word is velvety. And we have been enjoying a velouté of white beans since the Carnivore picked up the recipe at a truffle market, where he got this beauty. They call truffles black diamonds for a reason.
It was velouté de haricots lingot et truffe–a thick, velvety white bean soup with truffles. OMG. Lingots are ingots, like the bars of gold, but in this case they refer to the special white beans grown just west of Carcassonne and used for cassoulet.
Here’s the recipe, handed out at the market. We didn’t follow it precisely because the box of lingots was 500g and we weren’t going to keep 100g sitting around lonely like that. Also, it calls for a 30g truffle, and ours had been whittled down to 13g. I tell you what, it was still fantastic.
We made it again, with rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms–yummy. A good alternative when truffles aren’t available.
Like so many French recipes, you have to make it over two days. The night before, soak 400 g (14 oz.) of beans (or more!). Separately, chop up your truffle and infuse it in 10 cl (about 3.5 fluid oz.) of heavy cream. (You might want to keep a few shavings on the side for garnish.) If you don’t have a truffle, use about a half a cup of shiitake mushrooms that you soaked and put through the blender or food processor to get the effect of shavings.
Next day, cook the beans. Start with cold water and cook them for two hours.
Peel and mince half an onion and one carrot (I set out two carrots for the Carnivore to use and he fell for it. And the soup was divine despite double the vegetables.)
When the beans are done, drain them and rinse with fresh water.
In a casserole, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the carrots and onion to soften them but not brown them. Then add the beans and half a liter (17 fluid oz. or just over a cup) of chicken stock. Bring to a boil and then drop the heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the truffle cream. Salt and pepper to taste. Use a soup mixer to turn it into a creamy, velvety, homogenous texture. If you use a blender, let the soup cool before blending–for safety–and then reheat.
Serve with a few shavings of truffle, if you have any left.
We have a mushroom hater in the house who devoured this because the mushrooms were reduced to tiny bits (we didn’t mention them, either). If you aren’t a fan of mushrooms, I guess you can go without, but since they’re so tiny here, you don’t notice them–you just get the depth of flavor that they add.
The French are particularly proud of their own cuisine–rightfully so–and the “foreign” section of supermarkets is slim and perplexing (you can find marshmallow fluff but no chocolate chips, not even from Nestlé, which is right next door in Switzerland; there are canned beans in some unnaturally colored sauce but good luck finding black beans, canned or dry). All the same, the top take-out food is pizza, a favorite for feeding a crowd is paella and everybody loves couscous.
As pizza comes from France’s neighbor to the east and paella from its neighbor to the south, couscous comes from its neighbors across the Mediterranean–North Africa–which also has a large representation among the immigrant community in France, the former colonial power. Lots of restaurants serve couscous and tajines, either traditional or given modern twists.
At home, the thing about couscous is that you can’t go wrong. Cook some vegetables into a soup, grill some meat, steam some couscous semolina–the grainy pasta that gives the dish its name. What you put in depends on what you have, but the usual suspects are popular: onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, tomatoes (canned stewed whole, in winter), potatoes, peppers red and/or green. Chickpeas always. Other options: zucchini, eggplant, celery, fava beans, cabbage, squash or pumpkin, beets, artichoke hearts, raisins….I’ve even snuck in broccoli stems (nutritious but not beautiful! trim the woody parts and dice small enough that the pieces can get soft). An opportunity to empty the fridge. You also can add fresh or dried herbs such as parsley, coriander, thyme….
For spices, you also get to pick and choose, though the dominant flavoring is ras el hanout, or “top of the shop”–a mix of the best spices the seller has on offer, and thus varying from vendor to vendor. Typical ingredients include cumin, ground coriander seeds, tumeric, ground ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, fenugreek, fennel, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mace, and different kinds of pepper and chilies. If you don’t find it in a shop, you can make your own–and change it up so your couscous always delivers a bit of a surprise. I have no shortage of North African shops to turn to here and buy my ras el hanout in small quantities so I can always try different ones.
You’re supposed to cook the vegetables with a piece of mutton, often the neck, but I don’t appreciate the flavor of lamb and want to avoid meat altogether. After all, the chickpeas plus the couscous make a complete protein. A great meatless meal.
That doesn’t fly with the Carnivore, who wants lamb chops AND spicy merguez. You also can make couscous with chicken if you prefer. Couscous royale includes multiple cuts of lamb, merguez (which also is lamb but I guess doesn’t count because it’s always listed separately) and chicken. You can season the lamb and chicken with cumin and coriander powder or with herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram).
Whenever I make soup, I like to brown the onions in some olive oil first, which adds a depth of flavor that you miss if you throw everything directly into a pot of water (if you are including a piece of meat in the soup, then brown it first, too). Then I add minced garlic and the hard vegetables like carrots and potato, which I’ve cut into chunks. You want the pieces to be small enough to cook through but not so small that they’ll fall apart into mush. I keep adding the vegetables, then the canned whole tomatoes, which I break up with a wooden spoon. I add a two or three can-fuls of water to rinse out the last juices and to bring up the liquid level. I also add a small can of tomato paste, which has a richer flavor, and rinse that can, too. You don’t need to completely cover the vegetables–you’ll see how the liquid rises as the vegetables cook. Don’t forget the chickpeas. Add the ras el hanout and any other spices you fancy–a few strands of saffron, or extra cumin or tumeric? Or maybe some grated fresh ginger or diced fresh green chilies? Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and cover and let it simmer for a couple of hours. It’s one of those dishes that’s better the next day. If you’re making it for the same day, count on at least 1.5 hours for it to cook.
If you are cooking with dried chickpeas, you have to plan ahead to soak them the night before in cold, salted water.
Now, the traditional way to make couscous is with a couscoussier, a special kind of steamer in which the bottom holds the soup, and it’s the steam from the soup that cooks the couscous semoule–the tiny pasta that looks like grain or rice–in the top part.
On my trips to Morocco, I got to visit local homes and see couscous being made the traditional way. In the movie “Julie & Julia,” Julie tries to handle hot canneloni without using utensils in order to get used to it. Well, in Morocco, the women would take steaming couscous and, with red, calloused bare hands, spread it out on the table to massage in olive oil, then repeat maybe half an hour later with butter, and again later with olive oil, etc. D.I.V.I.N.E.
I tried to replicate–NOT with my bare hands–the steps of adding oil and butter to the couscous, but it never came out the same as in Morocco. It was lumpy, not fluffy. Finally, I gave up and followed the directions on the package: measure your dry couscous (it comes in kilogram packages here, which is 2.2 pounds, or almost seven cups…make it all–it reheats well, and you’ll have leftover soup, guaranteed). Bring the same volume of water to a boil. While the water heats up, in a large bowl mix the dry couscous with two tablespoons of olive oil per cup of couscous. Pour the boiling water over this oiled couscous. Cover and let it sit for three minutes. Fluff. Add a half teaspoon of butter per cup of couscous and microwave for two minutes. Fluff again to distribute the butter. Voilà.Before making the couscous semoule, cook the meat–you can grill it, weather permitting, or cook it in the oven, on the stovetop (we use a plancha when it’s raining) or broil it. A rotisserie chicken is another option….
Couscous Maison shopping checklist
1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves (more always welcome–up to you)
2-3 carrots, cut into inch-long chunks
1-2 turnips, cut into half-inch chunks
1 large can (480 g/ about 3 cups) whole, peeled stewed tomatoes
1 small can (140 g, about half a cup) tomato paste
Other vegetables as you like, cut into chunks–I aim for a few others, like one or two small zucchini and maybe a small slice of squash (it’s sold by the slice at markets here). More vegetable variety = more vitamins, but also more volume; consider how much you want to make, though leftovers freeze nicely.
Herbs–fresh parsley or coriander
Couscous semolina, 500 grams (about 3.25 cups) for four people
Harissa is the wild card here. It’s easy to find here, but you might have to hunt for it in other countries. It’s a Tunisian hot pepper paste and not 100% necessary if you don’t like spicy food. You put a little into the soup ladle and drop the ladle into the soup to get some broth, then mix the paste into the broth with your spoon before pouring it over your personal serving, because some like it hot but others not. Beware of squirting harissa directly onto your food!
Have you had couscous? What are your favorite ingredients?
Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité. The motto of France. And another kind of fraternity–une confrérie–is more like a brotherhood, and in typical French logic, is a feminine noun. They started out being quasi-religious and charitable, but now are mostly based on promoting certain traditions, especially those having to do with gastronomy.
The confréries are a way for French foodies to indulge their gastronomic obsession along with their love of pomp and ceremony, tradition and regulation, seriousness and silliness. You name something to eat or drink and there’s a club devoted to it. They dress up in costumes and attend each other’s festivals.
The ones that really slay me are when they wear a cup around their necks. Be prepared!
There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Boudin Noir (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Black Blood Sausage) and the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Haricot de Soissons (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Soissons Beans). There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique de l’Ordre de l’Echalote de Busnes (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Order of the Busnes Shallot) and the Chevaliers de la Poularde (Knights of the Hen). The Carnivore was in fact a member of la Confrérie du Taste-Cerise. Two groups are dedicated to cassoulet: the Academie Universelle du Cassoulet and the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet. I wrote about the Academiehere. And la Confrérie Los Trufaïres de Vilanova de Menerbès (that’s Occitan–the ancient language of this region–for the truffle brotherhood of Villeneuve Minvervois) here.
Belonging to a gastronomic brotherhood involves dressing up in medieval costumes and getting together to eat your chosen dish regularly, as well as helping to promote it and preserve its purity and traditions in France and around the world. It’s the Chamber of Commerce, with a big dose of bons vivants. You can see a parade of various groups at the Toques et Clochers festival I wrote about here; toques are the hats worn by chefs, while clochers are church bells. The festival raises money via food and drink to restore a church belfry each year.
Anyway, French frats came to mind on Saturday, when, while buying locally grown cauliflower at the market, I was distracted by the dulcet tones of horns. How appropriate! Of course, I had to investigate. I didn’t figure the gilets jaunes had brought in a band.
By then, a men’s choir, le Choeur des Hommes des Corbières–a neighboring wine territory–had started singing. I can’t upload videos here, but you can see one on my Instagram. An elderly gentleman, wearing a long apron and a hat, poured little cups of wine for the crowd from a wooden cask hanging around his neck. It was 10 a.m.
It was the feast of Saint Vincent, patron saint of winegrowers. So the national gastronomic club of Prosper Montagné (hometown boy, born in Carcassonne, inventor of the food truck, writer of the original Larousse Gastronomique, which is the bible of French cuisine) organizes a march past Montagné’s childhood home to the Church of St. Vincent (of COURSE a church in the center of Carcassonne is dedicated to St. Vincent!) for a blessing of the wine. Then they paraded through the central Place Carnot and on around the corner to a former church (they were about one per block back in the Middle Ages and now only a couple of bigger ones are still used) that now is a temple to bullfighting, headquarters of the Cercle Taurin. You can see the local TV coverage here.It was all wrapped up with a gastronomic dinner. Of course.
One of the biggest differences between life in the U.S. and life in Europe is buying groceries. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of people who head to the hypermarché once a week and load up their shopping carts with everything from apples to zucchini, with socks and motor oil and kitchen appliances as well.
In fact, the hypermarket was not invented by Walmart (first Supercenter in 1988) or Target (SuperTarget introduced in 1995). It was born in France, when Carrefour opened a combined supermarket-department store combo near Paris in 1963. Like many firsts in history, this one is disputed–GB, a Belgian chain, had opened three hypermarkets in 1961, calling them SuperBazar, which is kind of funny, because un bazar not only is a market but it’s slang for a mess or disorder (GB stood for Grand Bazar). However, Carrefour is the one with the last laugh, because it bought GB in 2000.
We also have food-only supermarkets that don’t take a week to walk across, and épiceries, or small grocery stores. And there are a whole range of specialized stores, such as the Thiriet and Picard chains for frozen foods.
Many French still make separate trips to the fromagerie for cheese, the boucherie for meat, the poissonnerie for fish, the boulangerie for bread, the primeur for fresh produce.
Most towns and even larger villages have markets, along a street or in a square, usually two or three times a week. In tiny villages without an épicerie, itinerant vendors similar to food trucks arrive, one selling produce, another selling fish or cheese….it’s the moment for the little old ladies to get out and gossip. The mairie, or town hall, will make an announcement over loudspeakers set up through the village–the modern town crier–so nobody misses the vendors.
Farmers also set up stands at roundabouts, and not just in summer. Maybe it’s because the winters are mild–we are in the midst of a cold spell with highs in the low 40s and lows flirting with freezing. New England it isn’t. On offer: fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables, mussels and oysters, mushrooms, oranges from Spain sold by a poor Spanish fellow who lives in the truck until the load is sold and he can drive back….
The common thread is freshness. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.
Alas, one must go to the hypermarché from time to time for such necessities as laundry soap and toilet paper. Some surprises: The milk is UHT (ultra-high temperature, a treatment that allows it to be stored at room temperature until opened), so it isn’t in the refrigerated aisle and the biggest size is a liter, though you can buy packs of liters. Eggs aren’t washed so they aren’t refrigerated. There’s an entire aisle of emmental (like Swiss cheese, the French go-to cheese that’s on everything from crêpes to pizzas to croque-monsieurs). There are about three kinds of boxed cake mixes and no ready-made frosting. There are about a million kinds of yogurt. And butter. And cream. The industrial cookie aisle is called biscuits industriels–industrial cookies. It makes you think twice about taking anything off those shelves. Never fear–there’s usually a table with fresh-baked goods near the checkout.
Bring your own bags. And a €1 coin or token to unlock a shopping cart. It’s DIY–nobody will bag your stuff much less carry it to your car, and usually you have to weigh your produce yourself on a scale in the aisle that spits out a sticky ticket. Woe unto you if you have stood in line (because there are 36 checkouts but only three open) and haven’t weighed your carrots. You will spend more time standing in line to pay than you spent filling your cart because the people in front of you will inevitably huff and mutter about how slow the people in front of them are, and then they will play with their phones, and then, like the people before them, they will take their sweet time to carefully arrange their purchases in the carts after they’ve been passed through the scanner, and then, while the cashier is tapping her pen and everybody still in line tapping their feet in impatience, they will rummage through their purse to find their checkbook, because OMG what a surprise, they have to pay. Nobody ever fills out the check while standing in line. Nobody. And then they will empty their purse onto the conveyor belt in order to find their driver’s license for ID for the check. More people are paying with cards, but the French still love writing checks. More than once I have been in a checkout line that stretched all the way to the back of the store. Will the manager open more checkout lanes? Never. Unthinkable.
This is why the Carnivore goes to the hypermarket and I go to the outdoor market in the central square on Saturdays. Which would you choose?
Of 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.
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.
A 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!)
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.Set 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.If 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.When 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.Then stir in the truffle-infused butter.Serve immediately with more truffle on top.Fresh 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?
Eating 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.My 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. All 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!You soak the seeds for half an hour in a cup of cold water.Then spread them over the mesh so they’re in a single layer.Fill 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.It 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.The 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?
Last 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.
We kept it smaller than the Fête de la Lumièrelast 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.As 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.
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.We 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.
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.To 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.
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.
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.Rather 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.I 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…Do you see the pattern?Yes, 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). I 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.
Christmas 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.
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.
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.
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.
How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?