Continuing 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
If you serve parsnips, the compliments won’t be empty.
We 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Patate douce, chataigne, pintade fermière du Poitou–sweet potato, chestnuts and guinea hen from the Poitou department. Also for lunch.
So 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. Chicken 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)
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.
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.
To 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.
Do 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.Here’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.
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.We 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.So 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.
I 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.
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
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
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).Chop 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.
Guess 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.
Set 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.
If 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.
I 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.
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.
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.You 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.
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).
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.
At 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. Within 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.
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.Lots 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.Let 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).If 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.Around 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.Before 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.
Late summer brings two wonderful treats: figs and wild blackberries. Both grow in profusion along roadsides and among the brush on the edges of fields and vineyards. One day I realized my hourlong walk had taken almost twice as long because I kept stopping to pick goodies. Picking blackberries is a zen task. Despite the thorns, I enjoy it. The berries are like glistening gems, plump with juice. Usually some birds venture near but not too near, enjoying the biggest berries that are high beyond my reach. The air smells sweet from the dried pines all around and is sweetened further by the overripe fruit that has fallen and is returning to earth.Even sweeter are the blackberries. They have no tang to them at all, the way raspberries do. Just straight sweetness. Almost too much. That’s why I like to pair them with a nice, tart lemon tart.
Tarte au citron is one of those classic French bistro offerings and couldn’t be easier to make. Sure, you can put meringue on top, but if you have wild blackberries, the colors contrast as perfectly as the flavors. I think other very sweet, not too drippy fruits would work, too, like blueberries. Maybe even figs, though I haven’t tried that. Be daring. The worst that can happen is that you won’t do that combination again. But I bet you will make tarte au citron again and again.Of course, you can always use a premade pie crust. If you have a choice, most tarte au citron recipes recommend pâte brisée, a shortcrust dough, rather than pâte feuillétée, which is the flaky kind…unless you’re crazy about flaky piecrust, in which case, you should do as you like. Far be it from me to look down on somebody’s crust preferences.
I made a nutty crust that was not too sweet. 1/2 cup (57 g) chopped nuts (walnuts, pinenuts, almonds–whatever you have. Not peanuts, though)
1 3/4 cup (220 g) flour
12 tablespoons (170 g) of butter, softened but not melted
1/2 cup (57 g) powdered sugar
Grind the nuts finely (I used almond powder left over from macarons).
Beat the butter and powdered sugar until fluffy. Add the egg. When it’s integrated, add the flour, and don’t go crazy about getting it completely mixed in. Then stir in the nuts, just enough that you can gather the dough away from the bowl. Divide it in half. Wrap each half (I flatten them so they are easier to roll out later) in plastic film. One half can go in the freezer for another day. The other one needs to chill for an hour or two.When it’s ready, preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Roll out the dough, set it in a 9 1/2-inch pie pan, and cover it with parchment paper, then with pie weights. Back for 20 minutes, then remove the pie weights and paper and bake for five more minutes so the bottom gets dry and a little brown. Let it cool.
For the custard:
3/4 cup (170 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream (I was out this time, and as it was a Sunday and nothing was open, I substituted coconut milk, which worked great)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 cups blackberries (about the size of a liter of ice cream, which is the container I used when picking)
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).
Grate the lemons. Then squeeze the juice. You should get about 2/3 cup, maybe a bit shy (about 150 ml).
In a small bowl, add the cornstarch. Then work in the lemon juice, little by little, so the cornstarch dissolves without lumps.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar, then the lemon juice, grated peel and cream. Pour into the piecrust.
Turn the oven down to 325 F (160 C). Bake for about 25 minutes (check before), until the custard has set (shake it a little to see whether it jiggles).
Let it cool a bit, then press the blackberries into the custard.
There are different ways to impress guests. You can serve the most refined and perfectly prepared dishes. Or, if you’re entertaining 8-year-olds, you can make a piñata cake. Cake AND candy! Two great tastes that taste great together. A guaranteed hit that will first make jaws drop and then mouths open.
I established a reputation in my little village here in the deepest, most lost depths of France profonde as somebody who made very strange gâteaux, but they were mostly good.
There was the carrot cake, at one of our earliest gatherings. A July 4 cookout, and we invited everybody we knew at the time. I had made a bunch of desserts, including a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, sheet-cake format, decorated with strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag.
I was about to cut it, but a friend said, “Oh, wait, I have to show everybody first!” As she carried it around, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I said carrot, she just about dropped the thing. Her face was the picture of shock. And horror. But, being incredibly gracious, she recovered, and turned the conversation to the frosting. Answering that it was made with cheese didn’t help the situation.
The other desserts got eaten in short order, but the carrot cake sat untouched until finally one guest, who hadn’t paid attention to this exchange, took a piece. The others watched warily, and when his face lit up with pleasure, they all had to try this strange carrot cake with cheese on top. It disappeared in minutes.
Just FYI, these days a very branché (literally “plugged in”–hip) café in Carcassonne serves not only carrot cake but also cheesecake and many kinds of cupcakes. And is always crowded.
However, to my knowledge, at least in these parts, to get hold of a piñata cake, you have to DIY or see me. And I am about to spill my secrets.Now, a piñata made of papier mâche (pronounced pap-ee-ay mash, not paper mashay) is extremely uncommon around here. There is no going to Wal-Mart or Target, where you can get a wide selection of Mexican piñatas made in China. In fact, in deepest France, piñatas were quite unknown, even though Dora l’Exploratrice was a hit in a certain demographic on TV.
I made a piñata for the class, and was very proud of myself. It was the image of a popular cartoon character. I was completely unprepared for the reaction: horror. I had brought a tee-ball bat that a dear American uncle had given my kid, wanting my child to have all the benefits of American heritage, even while living in France. However, this uncle was quite aware that my husband is gifted at hitting balls with his feet or his head but not with his hands and that I am a complete and utter ZERO when it comes to anything round. Just forget it. I can’t throw and I can’t catch. (I can’t run or swim or …. well, you get the picture. Not coach material.)
So the piñata full candy and crayons and erasers (hey, not TOO much sugar!) was suspended from a stately plane tree in the school courtyard, but the kids were utterly horrified at the idea of beating a beloved visage into oblivion.
I should have known better. A few years earlier, I had done a Winnie the Pooh theme for a birthday cake and was very proud of my artistry…until it came time to cut the cake, and the children bawled like mad because I had desecrated Winnie. No, dear reader, if you have to cut it, make it something banal.
Of course, and I really should have seen this coming, with the piñata, it was Lord of the Flies. As soon as one child slugged it, then the others tasted blood and were all in.
Things went somewhat better with the cake. However, I warn you that while the first slice or two is utterly impressive, after that the architecture of the thing falls apart and you have a cake/frosting/candy mess. But by then the little devils are so hyped up they don’t even notice.
OK so here we can get into the whole French-vs.-U.S. (or wherever) supermarket supplies. You cannot find confetti cake mix in France. Forget it. In fact, they don’t sell cake mix at all. You can find a mix for flan, for macarons, for fondant (or moelleux–NOT THE SAME) au chocolat, but not for cake/gâteau. That’s because cake mix is a huge rip-off, and the French, being skin-flints in the most admirable way, refuse to buy it. Flour, sugar, leavening, salt…for crying out loud! Plus they have to add a bunch of chemical preservatives (OK, if you’re prudish avert your eyes, because “preservatives” in French means condoms (like for birth control, not like the French town) and the stuff that adds shelf life is called “conservateurs.”) It takes all of one minute to actually measure the dry ingredients, and even with a mix you have to add all the liquid ones.
So back to the recipe. You make a yellow (or white) cake. Chocolate would hide the confetti aspect.
2.5 cups white flour
2 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
1 cup butter
2 cups granulated sugar
4-5 eggs, separated (4 if big; 5 if not)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 cup sprinkles (or more!)
Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 C).
Sift the dry ingredients.
Beat the butter until it gets white and fluffy. Add the sugar, then the egg yolks and vanilla.
Beat the whites until they’re stiff.
Mix the butter into the dry ingredients. Stir in about a third of the milk, then another third, and another.
When the batter is well-mixed, carefully integrate the egg whites, stirring in ONE DIRECTION. This is the same advice as for Mousse au Chocolat and Baba au Rhum. Consistency. At the last minute, add the all-important sprinkles.
You need two identical Pyrex bowls, about 6.5 inches (17 cms) in diameter. Butter them and pour in the batter. Bake for about 20 minutes (but check after 15!).
Let it cool. Before you turn out the two halves, scoop out the insides of the cakes. Make sure you have at least 2 inches (5 cms) of cake all the way around, or else it will collapse.
Make the frosting. I just did classic buttercream–equal parts butter and powdered sugar, with a dash of vanilla. Later, I added food coloring.
I used something like M&Ms, which at that time you couldn’t find in France but now they’re everywhere. Nothing too soft or sugary or else it will dissolve with the humidity of the cake. In fact, let the cake get completely cool before assembling. Don’t make more than a day in advance.Put the bottom half of the piñata cake on the serving dish. Then pour the candy into the hollowed-out hole in the bottom half of the cake, carefully creating a talus hill above. Without disturbing the candy, apply some frosting around the flat lip of the bottom half of the cake. Delicately set the top half of the cake on it.
Frost the whole thing. As you can see, I’ve done this more than once. The smooth frosting was much easier than the little stars.
The last bit of advice: Don’t stress about it. Years later, my kid remembers only that I made birthday cakes from scratch (spatula licking was involved), vs. other kids whose parents picked up something random at the supermarket. It really is the thought that counts.
If you visit France, of course you want to take home one of its most famous specialities: wine. Whether for yourself or a gift, you can get some amazing wines in France from wineries that are too small to export, or, even if they do export, that aren’t easy to find.
How do you make sure your treasures get home safely? We have used this method for more than 15 years and have never had a broken bottle. It’s easy and nearly free.
You need one cardboard wine box for every two bottles; scissors or a box cutter; duct tape or some other strong tape. (BTW, I read once that it’s smart to pack a small roll of electrical tape in your carry-on for emergencies. It saved me once when my suitcase appeared on the carousel completely open, with all three latches broken. Of course this wasn’t in any way the airline’s fault. Anyway, the tape let me get the suitcase shut enough to get out of the airport.)
First, cut the box so it opens flat.
Roll the bottle and cut where it goes all the way around.
Wrap tape around the middle.
Bend the bottom like wrapping a present and tape well.
Squeeze the top–the cardboard will pleat around the narrower bottle neck. Tape well.
Tape the whole thing like crazy. It goes through the X-ray machines just fine, and we’ve never had them questioned or opened.Sometimes for good measure we first wrap the bottle in bubble wrap and then do the cardboard. And sometimes we then put the wrapped bottle into a plastic bag so that if, heaven forbid, it breaks, it won’t seep out all over your clothes. At least not as much.
This method has worked well for us, though. Even when we’ve dropped our luggage. Even when we’ve dropped the wrapped bottles.FYI, the wines shown here are beyond excellent, from small wineries that do export. We featured la Tour Boisée earlier; le Château Villerambert Julien also is fantastic. Both are from the Minervois A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée–the official guarantee it comes from a certain region and meets strict standards). Minervois is just northeast of Carcassonne. Look for it!
Entertaining in summer is so different from winter. As soon as it’s nice out, we eat en terrasse for every meal, and the same applies for dinner parties. While winter dinners are cozy and intimate around a candlelit table, they can only be so big. That also is nice–the conversations are deeper with a smaller group.
But a big party is fun, too. We got in the groove of cooking hamburgers, partly to redeem them from the bad rep of McDonald’s (people here complain about McDonald’s but France is MacDo’s most profitable market outside the U.S., cough, cough). Fan or foe, anybody would admit that a homemade burger cooked on a real grill is a step above.
Burgers are a good option because they offer mass customization: you prepare and cook a ton of them the same way, and everybody can dress theirs up as they like. We learned our lesson and made them rather small and thin, for quicker cooking and because some people eat just one small one and others eat five. (In earlier years, we threw away an awful lot of half-eaten big burgers.)
One friend brought appetizers, so that was taken care of.
We had two salads on the side: a pasta salad with an Italian vibe (lots of fresh basil, olive oil, red wine vinegar) and an Asian-inflected cabbage slaw–no creamy dressings in this heat. They were made one day ahead.
The carrot cake has a history. One of our early such cookouts coincided with July 4. I decorated the carrot cake with blueberries and raspberries to make an American flag. One of our friends thought this was so pretty, it had to be shown to everybody before we cut it to eat. As she walked around with it, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I answered “Carrot,” she stopped as if she’d gotten an electric shock, and nearly dropped the cake. She recovered and then, as if to save me from the horror of the idea of a cake made with carrots, asked about the frosting. “A kind of cheese,” I explained. At that time, Philadelphia cream cheese was found only in expat groceries (where I had paid a small fortune) and I didn’t yet know that Saint-Môret is pretty much the same thing.
That was it. Nobody touched the carrot cake. Finally, somebody who was out of earshot for this came around and took a piece. Biting into it, she exclaimed, “Wow, this pain d’épice is delicious”–pain d’epice (spice bread) being familiar, but usually much drier and without a tangy cream cheese frosting. That gave the others an excuse to satisfy their curiosity and the carrot cake was quickly devoured.
By now, even here in France profonde, trendy tea salons serve carrot cake and cheesecake.
Here are some recipes for feeding a crowd (we had about three dozen people):Asian-influenced cabbage slaw
1 head of red cabbage (green is OK but not as pretty), grated or sliced as finely as you can
1-2 red bell peppers, chopped
4-5 carrots, grated
1 onion, finely chopped
fresh ginger about the size of a thumb, peeled and finely minced
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp soy sauce
Put the liquids in a jar and shake to make the vinaigrette. Toss with the vegetables. If you do it a day earlier, it’s even better, because the vinegar will soften the cabbage. This is a refreshing alternative to traditional coleslaw.Pasta salad
500 g (1 lb.) pasta of your choice, cooked al dente (don’t overcook, so it holds up)
1 red bell pepper
1 green or yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup basil leaves
1 large onion
Chop all the vegetables and toss with the pasta. Because of braces, we chop pretty finely and grate carrots. I peel nothing, just wash–keep those vitamins! The basil I scrunch into a bunch and cut into ribbons, but you also can tear it. Other possible additions: olives (black or green), sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, even fruit like peaches. There is no right or wrong here.
In a jar, combine 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3/4 cup olive oil, a clove of garlic (minced very finely) and a big spoonful of capers. Shake to mix and toss into the salad.
The carrot cake recipe is from Epicurious–BA’s Best Carrot Cake, from Bon Appétit, May 2016. We didn’t include the rum (actually our kid made all the desserts except for the frostings). For some reason, I didn’t use the frosting recipe there and instead used the Epicurious “Classic Cream Cheese Frosting,” which came out way too runny, perhaps because of the heat here, and I ended up adding a lot of powdered sugar.
The chocolate cake was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Moist, rich, not cloyingly sweet. It’s from the Violet Bakery, and I found the recipe on the excellent blog 101 Cookbooks. I did the marshmallow frosting, too, which was just like a marshmallow cloud. Didn’t manage to pipe it, though, possible again because of the heat. This one is my new go-to recipe for chocolate cake.
The nut bars are a tried-and-true success from “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” which is an oldie but goodie. Page 256. This cookbook gets constant use, even after decades. A few things seem very ’80s, but the vast majority is classic. And classy.
Here are the nut bars, called Pecan Squares, but, not wanting to take out a second mortgage to buy exotic pecans, I used walnuts, which are delicious.
The Silver Palate’s Pecan (or walnut) Squares
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 pound butter, softened
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease a 9×12 sheet pan (or grease and use parchment paper). Sift the sugar and flour together. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you get fine crumbs. Press into the pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and set aside.
2/3 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 1/2 cups coarsely chopped nuts
Mix all the ingredients together and drop in dollops onto the crust, spreading it out evenly.
Return to the oven and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes (better to set your timer for less and pull it out when it’s brown and bubbly and not when it’s burned!).
I cut everything into bite-sized squares because plenty of people wanted one of everything, and they could always come back for seconds. Or thirds.
This was not a hugely expensive party to throw, considering how many people we had. Nor was it hugely complicated. The hamburgers themselves involved 9 kilograms (almost 20 pounds) of ground beef, with about 20 eggs, a cup of soy sauce, a cup of Worcestershire sauce and 2 cups of bread crumbs (the eggs and bread crumbs keep them from breaking up). This made about 85 hamburgers.
The best bet is to make the burgers a day or two ahead, and to have three dozen or so in a big container and then to have the rest in a couple of smaller containers. The big container gets cooked first, because everybody will fall on them as fast as they come off the grill as if they hadn’t eaten for a week. The others can stay in the fridge until needed, and, if there are leftovers, you can put them in freezer bags, all ready for a future cookout.
We had everything ready the day before, and the day of, we just had put out the paper “tablecloths” and cushions and the plates (real china dessert plates that have been well-amortized over 20-some years) and silverware (Ikea, again, well worth the investment from 20 years ago). Then we all put our feet up and relaxed for about an hour before guests arrived. Which is as it should be.
Do you throw big parties? Tell all! If not, what’s holding you back?