Velvety White Bean Soup

img_0663The 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.

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Preparing the soup. Note the burlap bag of beans.

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.

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An interesting contraption for measuring the portions.

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.

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It doesn’t look like much, but appearances are deceiving.

Serve with a few shavings of truffle, if you have any left.

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Heaven in a bowl.

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.

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French Frats

img_0728Liberté. 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. 

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See the little bunch of grapes on the hat?

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 Academie here. 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.

 

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Banners: la Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, left, and la Mesnie des Chevaliers du Fitou (the house of the Knights of Fitou)

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.

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Her hair!

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.

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I love the range of ages of the musicians.
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Also, the guy in the crowd with a chic scarf that matches the ribbon for his medal.

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.

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The cask! I love his hat. Also the beret in the top photo, as common as baseball caps here. Without irony.
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A giant wine bottle on a litter. A Melchior? It was about three feet tall.
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The maker of la Tour Boisée wine. I wrote about it here. This is one of the few wines from this small region, Minervois, that’s sold abroad. If you find it, buy it! (Personal recommendation–I get nothing from them!)

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.img_0754It was all wrapped up with a gastronomic dinner. Of course.

 

 

Truffles Are Always a Good Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sprouting in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finger Food Feast

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

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It only looks like a lot of glasses.

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

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Chili…so delicious!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe? Schmecipe.

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

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

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

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

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

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Before cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meatless Main Dish Pillows of Bliss

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

two onions, diced

two eggs

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

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

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

1 tsp of oregano

salt and pepper

olive oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Truth and Fries

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

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

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

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

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Initial cooking. Scary!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The second rest.

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

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

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

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

Tarte au Citron with Blackberries

IMG_6386Late 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. mures 3P1080453Picking 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.mures 7mures 6Even 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.

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Seen at a vide grenier

mures 1Tarte 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.IMG_6409Of 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. IMG_63591/2 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

1 egg

Grind the nuts finely (I used almond powder left over from macarons).

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My pastry board, a gift from a great uncle who was a carpenter, made for me when I was born. Now that is a special baby present. The marble rolling pin also was a gift, from my best friend’s mom. It has traveled.

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.IMG_6378When 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.

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Before baking. A spoon makes a nice design.

For the custard:

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I forgot to include the cornstarch in the photo.

4 eggs

3/4 cup (170 g) granulated sugar

2-3 lemons

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).

IMG_6363Grate 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).

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The divot was a lemon pip that I had missed earlier.

Let it cool a bit, then press the blackberries into the custard. IMG_6392

Cool, Composed and So French

P1080727It’s hot. The glare of the sunshine, the sharp shadows, the heat mirages wavering up from the asphalt. I don’t mind, because it’s summer, and summer is always too short. What I do mind is cooking when it’s hot.

Our kid had a friend over for a few days and I made a Moroccan chicken pastilla (yes, I’m on a Moroccan kick after all that yummy food in Casablanca), and the next day we made pizzas. Both pastilla and pizzas are cooked in the oven. And the day before, I had made a cake because a bunch of friends were coming for coffee. Too much oven!

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Pasta salad is not unknown. Nor potato salad.

We are back to regular summer programming. That means salad for dinner. When I ask French friends what they do for dinner, they say “soup” in winter and “salad” in summer.   While I have seen some French salads that involve cold pasta tossed with raw (or canned) vegetables, more often it’s a salade composée–a composed salad, in which the ingredients sit nicely next to each other, like neighbors, respecting each other’s personal space.

BTW, the word for lettuce is salade, but a salad doesn’t always have salade in it. And there are many kinds of lettuce–laitue, chêne, romaine, batavia, scarole, mâche, cresson, mesclun….IMG_3843There are the famous French composed salads. Salade niçoise, named after the city of Nice, has tuna, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, anchovies and olives, often served on a bed of lettuce.

Another is salade lyonnaise, named after Lyon, with bitter greens like frisée (frizzy!), lardons (bacon chunks), and a poached egg.

And a salad that doesn’t have a special name but is a classic found in many traditional restaurants features cold, cooked green beans, cold boiled potatoes, and either tuna or lardons.

All these would be served with a homemade vinaigrette. Homemade is SO quick and easy, and without all the nasty chemicals. One part vinegar to three parts olive oil, a finely chopped shallot or clove of garlic, a little salt and pepper, and maybe a little Dijon mustard. Put it in a jar with a tight cover and shake. Voilà. Change the kind of vinegar (balsamic instead of red wine, for example) and it’s very different. Sometimes I make it with rice wine vinegar and a mix of sesame and peanut oils. IMG_4069Here’s what we do: clean out the fridge. Anything goes. Fruit, vegetables, cheese, ham or other charcuterie, leftover steak sliced thin. We’ll call it the Salade Composée du Carnivore, because he is the specialist, arranging everything artfully. Either drizzled with vinaigrette or just splashed with olive oil and vinegar.couscous salad closeupEvery few days, I make a big bowl of chopped salad, involving whatever vegetables are in season, plus some kind of vegetarian protein–beans and corn, beans and rice, quinoa, lentils, etc. It is good, but not as pretty as the French variety. cabbage and carrot salad closeup

Apéro Hour

IMG_5113One of the most sacred moments of the French day comes around 6 p.m. (or 18h, as they say here, because they sensibly use the 24-hour clock). Time for l’apéro, or apéritifs.

It can be simple–a glass of wine and some nuts and olives or a few slices of saucisson (hard sausage), to be nibbled on as one makes dinner. For many people, rushing home from work to throw together dinner for the family, l’apéro is appreciated only on the weekends, an almost sacred rite attached to the evening meal.

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Mini clafoutis with boursin and chorizo.

Drinks are always accompanied by food, very light, not to ruin the meal. I remember learning about l’apéritif in my French class in New York–that it comes from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” and what’s getting opened is your stomach.

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The crème de cassis and pêche de vigne get added to white wine or blanquette/champagne. Guignolet is like kirsch.

The drinks started off as alcoholic beverages made with herbs. Medicinal, of course. However, the most popular apéritifs in our region are simply a glass of wine or un jaune–a glass of pastis, the golden anise-flavored spirit that oxidizes when water is added, turning a milky yellow. If you want to sound like a local, ask for “un p’tit jaune” (a small yellow).

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A roll of piecrust, some spaghetti sauce and mozzarella become mini croissants.

Last weekend was the Fête des Voisins (European Neighbors’ Day), and about 15 of us gathered for dinner en terrace, each bringing a dish. Potlucks are unusual in France. They aren’t unheard-of, but if you’re invited to dinner, you are unlikely to be assigned a dish. However, you can bring flowers, a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or another thoughtful gift for the hosts.

Homemade gifts are OK, too. Like this one:

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An artisinal strawberry liqueur.

Which is not the same as a potluck dish.

But the Fête des Voisins is different. In our neighborhood, it was the Carnivore who took up the mantle of organizing a meal. Tables and chairs were rented (for a ridiculously cheap amount from the village, including delivery and pickup the next day!). Somehow, no matter how hot the preceding days had been, every year as dinnertime approached, clouds would roll in and the temperature would drop.

This is when it’s good to be neighbors with a winery. Several times, the tables were set up amid the huge cuves, or tanks, of wine, with plenty of room, not to mention atmosphere.

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Chorizo-olive “cookies”

This year, the group was smaller, but the intimacy was nice. The weather behaved and we had apéritifs next to the pool before moving to the table. I was assigned to bring appetizers, some of which I wrote about when we hosted a pre-Christmas apéritif dînatoire–basically a cocktail party.

I again made the chorizo cookies and two kinds of croissants (ham and Boursin, and “pizza” with tomato sauce and mozzarella). And I made two new ones that are SO easy: goat cheese mini tarts and savory mini clafoutis.

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Goat cheese mini tarts (packed in a bakery box for easy transport)

For the goat cheese mini tarts you need:

A readymade pie crust (feuillété, or flaky, if you have the choice)

A bûche, or log, of goat cheese

Honey

Fresh rosemary sprigs

Cut rounds out of the pie crust. I used a small glass. You want the rounds to be slightly bigger than the diameter of the goat cheese. Slice the goat cheese and lay the slices on the rounds. Place a tiny dab of honey on the goat cheese (I used a knife and just dipped the tip into the honey). Top with the rosemary. Bake at 360 F (180 C) for about 10 minutes–until the cheese has melted a little and the crust is cooked.

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Olive and boursin clafoutis.

The clafoutis recipe is similar to the recipe I used for rhubarb clafoutis, but without the sugar. You can put anything you want in them. I had Boursin left over from the croissants, and I thought sliced black olives would be pretty. When I used up the olives, I still had batter left, so I sliced up some more chorizo (the Spanish kind, which is a hard sausage). Both were delicious. You could do bacon, diced peppers, diced sun-dried tomatoes, other cheeses….

2 eggs

1  cup milk or cream or a combination

3/4 cup (30 grams) flour

pinch of salt

butter for greasing the muffin pan

Beat the eggs and milk/cream. Mix the flour and salt in a medium bowl that you can pour from. Add the liquid to the flour little by little, so you don’t get lumps. Let it rest for about half an hour. Pour into a greased mini-muffin pan. Drop your add-ins on top. Bake for 20-30 minutes (I had to turn the pan halfway through). IMG_5131À votre santé!