Coq au Vin

6 closeup marinateChicken cooked in wine is a classic French dish, one that isn’t difficult but that’s so delicious and easy to prepare ahead that it works very well for entertaining.

We have already shifted into grilling season, but our kid went to a loto (like bingo night) and won. In typical French fashion, the prize was 90% edible–a good farm chicken, a big artisanal hard sausage and a pot of paté–along with some baubles and a gift certificate for a manicure.

1 coq
Looking at us, unimpressed.

So coq au vin went on the menu stat.

The Carnivore generally disdains feathered food, except for duck, goose, pheasant, pigeons, guinea hen….hmmm. I guess he does likes volaille, as the category is called, but he does NOT like chicken, calling it “cardboard.” Unless it was farm-raised, not industrial, and has “flavor.”

2 feet
I know the feet are a delicacy in some parts, but not here. Those feet really do look like the dinosaurs they are.

He took charge of dissecting the beast. In fact, he took charge of the entire meal, including photographing the process for you. He is as excited about spreading French savoir vivre as I am.

3 cut upCoq au Vin

1 chicken (about 3 kg/6 or 7 lbs.), cut into pieces

1 bottle of full-bodied red wine

250 g (9 oz.) lardons (like cubes of bacon; you could do bacon and crumble it)

250 g (9 oz.) Paris mushrooms (like button mushrooms), sliced

1 onion, chopped

2 carrots, cut into rounds

2 cloves of garlic

2 tablespoons of herbes de Provence

1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns

50 cl (2 cups) beef broth

5 cl (3-4 tablespoons–oh, just go for 4) cognac

a couple of tablespoons of olive oil

a big tablespoon of flour

salt, pepper to taste

(2 medium potatoes per person, to serve on the side)

4 in baking dish
Ready to marinate

The day before, place the chicken pieces in a non-reactive dish (glass is good). Add the onion and carrots, then pour the wine over so the pieces are covered. Sprinkle on the herbs and the peppercorns. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

5 marinating
Marinating

About three hours before you want to eat, take out the chicken pieces and dry them (wet meat won’t brown). Strain the vegetables from the marinade. Keep the marinade!

8 out of marinade
Dry the chicken pieces before browning.
9 veg out of marinade
Strain the vegetables. Keep the marinade!

Heat the oil in a large pot (we have a mega le Creuset that is so heavy I can barely lift it, but it’s wonderful for cooking).

10 browningBrown the pieces of meat on all sides and set aside. Then add the vegetables and let them brown for about five minutes. Then sprinkle the flour over them and stir so they’re well-coated. This will thicken the sauce.

7 hennessy
He didn’t shoot the flames!

Put the chicken back in the pot, along with the garlic (crushed).

Warm the cognac, then light it to flambé and pour over the vegetables. (It wouldn’t be French if you didn’t flambé!)

Pour in the marinade and the beef broth. Bring to a boil then cover and let it simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Check the flavor and add salt/pepper to taste.

12 apero
Also, about a half an hour before serving, have an aperitif: blanquette de Limoux and hard sausage. It cracks me up that I found this shot in the middle of the series for this recipe. Priorities.

About half an hour before serving, prepare the potatoes (peel if you like, but we don’t–the skin has vitamins and it’s less work–win-win) and quarter them. Place them in a big pot and fill with cold water to cover them. Cover and crank up the heat to boil. If you add the salt after the water boils, it will make less of a stain on the bottom of your pot. Cook the potatoes about 20 minutes; check doneness with a fork.

13 done
The potatoes are to soak up all that delicious sauce.

While the potatoes are going, about 25 minutes before serving, brown the lardons/bacon and add the mushrooms to brown in the bacon fat for about 7-8 minutes. Add them to the coq au vin, so they can mix with the flavors for a good 15 minutes.

14 plated

Red Meat

2 slabs of meatFew things are as French as steak tartare. Raw ground beef. With a few additions.

On one of my early trips to Paris, I ordered steak tartare from some stately bistro. I barely remember now, but… There were flowers. Everybody was older than me. It felt very formal and grown up. There were different levels in the restaurant–not floors but groups of tables that were reached by stairs, which had brass handrails. It was the ’80s, and brass was very classy.

I had decided to be daring and get steak tartare even though I had grown up with extra-well-done meat. Some people drive fast for thrills; I did gastronomy.

Cutting the meat
Ah, but my dear butcher (who chews out people who annoy him! Kind of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but for meat) will trim off absolutely every bit of white, using frighteningly sharp knives.

The waiter was dressed in black dress pants, a black vest, a perfectly pressed white shirt (the crease on his sleeve was so crisp it looked as if it could draw blood if you ran a finger along it) and an immaculate white apron. He was around my father’s age at the time–50s–with gray hair. That was surprising because I had never seen anybody older than 30 waiting tables.

He wheeled over a cart with a large stainless steel bowl and showed me a lump of ground beef in the bottom. Then he asked me which garnitures I wanted: onions? chives? or was it shallots? capers? parsley? Tabasco? Worcestershire sauce? There were other possibilities, I’m sure–it was difficult to decide. I asked as politely as I could for a little of everything. How to say no to onions in favor of chives, or vice versa? It all sounded good.

inside fridge
Our dinner was hanging out in here.

The thing about being young and eager and excited is that you can ask what would ordinarily be a slightly impolite request, but it’s taken as what it is: enthusiasm, not greed. The waiter flicked a bit of everything into the mix, added a raw egg yolk, then vigorously mixed it all with a fork. He then coaxed it onto a plate and formed it with a few quick gestures, making a little volcanic crater, where he deposited another egg yolk.

With perfect timing, another waiter arrived with a hot serving of crispy fries.

fridge closed
Exterior view of the fridge. I ADORE the fact that it hasn’t changed in generations. And immaculately clean.

It was heaven. The texture, the flavors. I loved it. I didn’t eat meat very often. When on one of our early dates, the Carnivore asked me whether I was vegetarian, I answered no–to me that’s like asking whether I’d walked on the moon or whether I was pregnant–there’s no “kind-of” answer. It’s straight yes/no. I ate meat at least five or six times in the previous year, therefore, I wasn’t a vegetarian, much less a vegan (I can never give up cheese). I’m not against vegetarian or vegan diets, but I am just too lazy and I do like meat…a few times a year.

In fact, when I was living in Belgium, I would head to the brasserie across the street from our office for a steak tartare when I felt the oppressive damp dragging me into a cold. A nice big shot of protein to get back on track! Meat for medicinal purposes only. Seriously, I lived on salads and chocolate and cheese otherwise. OK, mostly chocolate.

Grinding
Ground before my eyes. No “pink slime” here.

In Belgium, they have another version, called steak américain, which unknowing Americans continually order only to send it back to be cooked. Steak américain is similar to steak tartare as both are RAW, but with a dollop of mayonnaise (because: Belgium) and even more seasonings. Go into any butcher shop or grocery store there and you will find raw beef seasoned in a huge variety of ways. Heaven.

Steak américain around here means a ground beef patty, fried, served without a bun, but with fries and possibly a green salad. Just so you know!

We are picky about where we have steak tartare. It’s the French version of sushi–raw and risky. There are restaurants we trust. But in general, we DIY, going to our butcher when we start jonesing for some raw meat. It’s pricey (I think I paid €16 for 700+ grams for the three of us), but we don’t splurge often. Go big or go home. (An aside: It is typically French to say “MY butcher.” Who has “my butcher” at a big supermarket? They don’t even cut up the meat in those places anymore. It arrives sealed in plastic.)

If you have a butcher you trust, then go for it!

All ready
The main ingredient.

Steak Tartare

I browsed a few dozen recipes to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Us? Onions, capers (on the side because our kid doesn’t like them), Worcestershire, Tabasco, egg yolks. That’s it. Keep in mind that you can do whatever the heck you want here. Tons of Tabasco and no Worcestershire? No problem! Capers? Schmapers if they aren’t your thing. Consider this like a pizza menu, where these are the  usual possibilities and you can take them or leave them. There is no right or wrong….except for the base of raw ground beef. (I’ve even had Thai-seasoned tartare.) You can add whatever you like, in whatever quantities you like. The French are rarely so accommodating, so profitez-en (enjoy).

Freshly ground or finely minced very lean steak. Count on 125 grams (4.4 oz.) or more per person, depending on appetite. (The American Heart Association says 2-3 oz. cooked is a serving size. This is raw, so you get to have more.)

one egg yolk for three people plus any extra egg yolks as desired for decoration

A teaspoon of:

–Dijon mustard (sorry, not in ours)

–Worcestershire sauce

additions
Simplicity. The green stuff is a fresh onion (like a scallion) from the market.

A tablespoon of:

–minced onion OR

–minced shallots OR

–chopped fresh chives

–chopped fresh parsley

–capers

–some say ketchup (your call, remember). Also olive oil, but that seems to me like gilding the lily.

Plus a little salt and pepper, and a few drops of Tabasco…or many drops. Your call!

Mash it all together. Refrigerate. Can be done a few hours ahead.

Prepare a green salad (lettuce, vinaigrette).

Prepare French fries.

Just before the fries are ready, get the salad and tartare on the table. If you want to get fancy, plate the tartare and stick an egg yolk on top of each mound of meat.

Voilà!

done
The Carnivore insisted that the fork marks made it prettier.

Another time we will  get the Carnivore to divulge the secrets of how to make perfect Belgian French fries. Warning: It’s not vegan!

 

 

 

 

 

Restaurants in France

place carnotFrom what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.

Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.

menu chinese russian 2First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.

trilingualBut if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.

The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking, or to help them succeed for good cooking. That is, away from the most obvious tourist spots, where the restaurants don’t have to care about the French diner. In order to get the best of French cuisine, you have to eat where the French do.

Things to look for:

Multilingual menus–they are often a clue to a high level of tourist trade.

lemon tart relieved
Lemon tart relieved with flavor of citrus fruits!!!!
home sauce
Home sauce? They mean homemade.

This is not a fail safe measure. Even for establishments without personal translators, it takes minimal effort to get the job done online. (Sometimes with comic results; however, bad translations don’t mean bad food–they mean bad translators.) So on the one hand, let’s give restaurants credit for being welcoming to tourists by providing translations, since it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

menu chinese russian
English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian? Looks like not everything translates.

On the other hand, the tough judges aren’t the tourists but the locals. You want to eat where they do. And if a restaurant is good enough, it will have so much business with the locals that it won’t need the tourists. This is the ideal restaurant. Reservation cards on tables are one hint that a place is good. Locals don’t walk in; they reserve.

Let’s say you’re walking around, looking for a place to eat. How can you tell whether a restaurant will be satisfying? One tip: look for chalk.

l'endroitPre-printed menus, like translations in many languages, aren’t a huge effort or expense anymore. But they can (as in sometimes) indicate that the menu doesn’t change with seasons. And that the menu is too big. There’s a risk they’re out of this and that, especially if you’re not traveling in high season, or you’re going to be served pre-cooked or industrial stuff, not freshly homemade.

Instead, look for a chalkboard with the day’s menu written in chalk. That means it changes, possibly daily.

felix
It takes practice to decipher French handwriting style.

A small menu means the chef pays attention to each dish and each ingredient.

Another key to your dining satisfaction is to know that an entrée is a starter/appetizer (not the main course). Entrée means entry, after all. The main dish may be called a plat (plate, or dish) or else you’ll just see viandes/poissons (meats/fish) in a separate category. I have noticed more vegetarian choices lately, but that’s a new trend. Even salads tend to have meat. Salade gourmande usually includes foie gras, gizzards and slices of dried duck breast. Just so you know. Usually these kinds of big salads are considered a meal and aren’t in any “prix fixe” or set-price menu. A “salade composée” is just a lot of ingredients laid on a bed of lettuce, not tossed. The French are not big on tossing. They like each item to be distinct. Just so you aren’t surprised.

small menu 2
*For the day’s special, see the blackboard.

Often, the menu will have separate dishes in their separate categories–five or six starters, then five or six main courses–and then a variety of “menu” choices, where you can get a good deal. It might be choose among entrées, plats, desserts for one price. Or it could be entrée + plat or plat + dessert for one price, and entrée + plat + dessert for another price.

le 104Cheese, at least a nice wedge or round with a bit of bread, usually is included in a menu. Sometimes also a small pitcher of wine, especially at lunch.

Seriously. This IS France!

On to the waiters. They are professionals. The tension is not really about them and their alleged rudeness but about diners’ expectations. What French diners expect from waiters is not at all what Americans expect.

The French waiter is not supposed to be your friend. He (and it very often is a man) is supposed to serve you. This is not rude; he’s supposed to leave you alone. He will not tell you his name; he may describe the day’s specials, but not to the extent that is fashionable in the U.S. He won’t stop by to see whether everything is OK.

Freaks
Clearly this menu changes often.

But if your water pitcher is low, it probably will be whisked off the table and refilled without you asking. If you drop your napkin, a new one will appear next to your plate as if by magic. The French waiter is not a participant in your meal but an invisible guardian angel ensuring that your meal goes flawlessly.

This continues right up to the end. Because in France, especially outside big cities like Paris, your table is yours and yours only for the entire evening. You can reserve for 8, but if you show up at 7:45, they won’t say it isn’t ready yet. If you show up at 8:30, you won’t be scolded and then rushed through your meal, because another party is scheduled to take over the table at 10.

artichaut 3 languages
In English and Spanish, too. The steak tartare with Thai seasonings is delicious, BTW.

Since the French love to linger at the table, there will be a pause between courses. This is expected; the service isn’t slow because the French don’t want their dishes to arrive one right after the other. When diners finish eating, their plates stay on the table until everybody in their party has finished, so that the slow eaters don’t feel pressure to rush. And, if they don’t see anything awry at your table, the waiters won’t come unless called. This is because you have every right to stay at the table and yak with your friends until the restaurant closes, without being pressured to continue to order drinks or coffees or whatever. So when you do want to leave and pay, you have to get their attention. The easiest way is to start to leave; they’ll come quickly with the check.

I have been to restaurants in France with visitors, and they have judged the service as bad, because it didn’t meet their American expectations: the waiter didn’t chat, the waiter ignored the table (though we never needed him), dirty dishes weren’t whisked away upon the last bite, the check took forever to arrive.

carnot 2The other thing is if you order something that’s not “done.” Two possibilities might ensue: First, in France and much of Europe, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is sadly mistaken (not the same as wrong). Take the menu above; the last item is veal sweetbreads with a morel cream sauce and risotto. But the waiter might have seen several non-francophone diners confronted with ris when they were expecting riz, having misread the menu. And he might try to see whether you know that ris isn’t rice, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same way as riz. And you might easily take it as the waiter being rude.

Or the waiter just can’t comprehend what you want. On a family trip to Italy years ago, my brothers routinely ordered coffee with their meals. Coffee lovers, they couldn’t wait to taste a vaunted Italian venti. The waiters would nod, “sì, sì, signore,” but the coffee wouldn’t come, despite frequent pleas by my brothers. The waiters would reply something in Italian that probably meant “we didn’t forget your coffee.” Eventually, the toddlers in the group had enough of sitting still and we would rush to get the check and leave before tantrums began. And my brothers never got their coffee. Because in Italy, nobody drinks coffee with dinner; it’s for after dessert. (They finally went to a café expressly to have an espresso. “There was a little cup, about the size of a thimble,” one brother recounted. “The bottom of it was barely covered with some brown foam. But I tell, you, it was enough!”)

encornetsWhen we lived in New York, the Carnivore suffered grievously every time we went out to eat. It was the same problem of clashing expectations, but in reverse. Why are these waiters telling us their names? Look, here they come again! Can’t they leave us in peace? Why do they bring the main dish so quickly? They don’t give us a minute to breathe! They give us the check before we’ve even had coffee!

He would send the main course back and tell them to wait until he had finished with the appetizer (or worse, the aperitif). And he would completely lose it when we would be told we needed to finish up and get out because the next party was waiting for our table. Once, he hadn’t finished the appetizer when the main course arrived, and the waitress grabbed the appetizer plate as he was still stabbing food with his fork. He pointed out that he hadn’t finished, so she just dumped the remaining food onto the main course dish.

But what do you expect? In New York, waiters are actors or singers or some flavor of Future-Successes for whom waiting tables is unworthy of their Greatness. They play the obsequious role only up to a point, then rebel as soon as it looks like they might not get a maximum tip. In France, waiting tables is an honorable métier, paid a living wage (with health coverage and retirement, of course), worth doing for an entire career.

menu citeAlso, forget about the 20% tips over here. Usually service is included, but one is polite to leave a little extra–10% would be generous.

So those French waiters aren’t ignoring you. They will know if you drop your fork before it even hits the floor and will slip you a new one before you think to ask. Their job is to work magically, without you noticing. They aren’t being slow or inefficient; they are letting you take your time.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Bon appétit!

So French: Leeks

marketHave you ever seen a photo of the stereotypical French market basket without some leeks poking out? Of course not, because they are ALWAYS in the basket.

Yet I never ate leeks until I moved to Europe. This isn’t surprising: In this list of most-consumed vegetables in the U.S., leeks don’t even appear, yet turnip greens and mustard greens do.

In contrast, leeks turn up at No. 11 on the list of most popular veggies in France, beating out peas, cauliflower, asparagus and artichokes, among other surprises.

Maybe it’s because of the so-called magic leek soup that supposedly keeps French women thin?

Or because in a chunk of France, leeks grow all year? Whatever the reason, the answer is the French love leeks, or poireaux. Not to be confused with poires (pears) or poivrons (sweet peppers). We even get wild leeks around here, like the regular ones but the size of a pencil.

While the French use them all over the place, from the “French Women Don’t Get Fat” soup to potato-leek soup to leek-and-whatever quiche and leek-and-whatever omelettes and leeks with vinaigrette and leeks gratin, I had them once in a restaurant here in France without any fuss, really just leeks, and they were awesome.

Here’s how to overcome your fear of leeks. Call it entry-level leeks. Easy beyond all the “easy” recipes I linked here (1) because I’m giving it to you in English and (2) because it’s THAT easy, yet SO good. Sometimes simple and elegant are just right.

Leeks Braised in Wine

One leek per person (more if you’re daring. I like two, myself)

A hunk of butter (at least a tablespoon; more is better and you might need more)

2 glasses of dry (of COURSE) white wine

salt and pepper

whites and greensLeeks generally are sold whole, a good two feet long. Only the white part is considered edible. Cut your leeks at the boundary between white and green. Peel off and throw away any brown/icky leaves/layers.

Cut off the roots, but not too close. You want that button at the bottom that holds all the rings together.

Cut the white part in half lengthwise.

Cut the green part into small rings about a half an inch wide.

cut in halfFill the sink with cold water and put all the leeks in there to soak a few minutes. Then carefully bend the white lengths so you can see between the layers and rub out any dirt or sand. Rinse each piece and set cut side down to drain.

Vigorously swish around the little green rings. The green part is what sticks out of the ground, so it’s more likely to have dirt clinging. When the rings are clean, rinse and let drain.

greens cutI put the rings into a plastic bag and use them in soup. In this case, they went into a couscous a few days later. Usually the green part is tough, so you want to use it in a soup that will cook a long time, so it gets nice and soft. Waste not.

Pour two glasses of white wine. Sip one.

cooking 1Over medium heat, melt the butter in a skillet that has a cover. When it has turned a little brown and isn’t bubbling any more, place the white leek lengths cut side down in the skillet. Put on the cover and have another sip of wine.

cooking 2Keep a close eye, because this all depends on your stove and your skillet. Using tongs, check for when the leeks have browned. Turn them over, pour in the other glass of wine, turn the heat to low, sprinkle with salt and pepper and put the lid back on.

Leisurely finish drinking your glass of wine. Perhaps think about the other dishes you are serving with the leeks, or, if you are dedicating yourself to this noble vegetable and have delegated the other dishes to a sous-chef, crack the whip on the sous-chef.

add wineCheck the leeks occasionally; if they seem dry, turn down the heat some more and add butter.

When you have finished your aperitif of white wine (10-15 minutes), you may serve the leeks. They should be melt-in-your-mouth tender, yet not mushy.

Bon appétit!

 

 

Scraping By With French Cheese

scraping-1What beats cheese?

bubbling-cheese
See it start to bubble?

Melted cheese. And it isn’t even fondue!

table-setWe don’t have a food processor but we do have a special apparatus for melting a giant half-wheel of cheese. This specialty, called a raclettedates to the Middle Ages, when shepherds set half of their round of cheese on a sone and turned the cut face toward the fire so it would get all bubbly and yummy. They would scrape off the melted part, and melt the next bit. They ate the melted cheese with bread, potatoes and dried meats.

scraping-3

scraping-2Today, we have a large heating coil, similar to a toaster, that beams down on the cheese. You can lower the heating element as the cheese grows smaller. The cheese itself can be pulled out and tilted, for easier scraping. Raclette comes from racler, to scrape.

cheese-in-wrappingMore common today are round appliances with little drawers (check this out: 117 choices here!). Supermarkets sell the particular cow’s milk cheese pre-sliced that’s just the right size. The heating element also heats the top, where you can cook little sausages, in what’s known as a pierrade. We also have a pierrade, but it’s a real slab of slate stone that you put a Sterno flame under, like back in the Stone Age. But that’s for another time. For one thing, it takes up most of the table. And so does the half-round of cheese. So chez nous, it’s raclette or pierrade, but not both.

We do the charcuterie.

charcuterieWe do the potatoes, going for little ones called grenailles (named after lead shot because of their size, about like a thumb). Managed to get a photo of a couple of leftovers.

grenailles
Grenailles aren’t new potatoes, but the little ones that grow between big, normal ones.

We do the bread. Duh. We also do a big green salad with a simple shallot vinaigrette.

cheesecakeFor dessert, we stayed with the cheese theme and had triple-chocolate cheesecake. Inspiration and recipe from French Country Cottage. However, we’d all eaten so much cheese, that the next time I will go for a lighter dessert. This one is perfect for a midafternoon snack, especially if dinner will be late, or a followup to a lighter meal.

A raclette has a nice rhythm to it, because you have pauses while waiting for the cheese to melt. The plates of cheese and all the trimmings are passed around and around, so it’s pretty convivial and relaxed.

The wine also contributes.

Years ago, the Carnivore belonged to a civic group whose winter fundraiser was a raclette. Imagine a banquet hall with a couple of these monster melters on each table of 20 or so. A very elegant, massive cheese-scraping dinner.

barrage-lakeSpeaking of convivial, the next day was gorgeous and just demanded a Sunday promenade. The entire village seemed to have the same idea. Everybody wanted to see what damage the river had done (not much–see below. Some neatly plowed gardens got a new layer of mud dumped on them. The jogging path through the woods is mostly gone. But honestly, those things belong in a flood plain, because they’re easily righted).

rocks-left-by-flood
This was not the path. It was full of brush before, and impassable.
jogging-path
This used to be the path; it went right through that wall of washed-up debris.

The most striking thing to me was the number of multigenerational groups out walking. Three generations strolling, time and again. There also were kids out alone, because we live in a time warp where kids play unsupervised, and elderly villagers, some alone and a few couples. Some parents with kids. But over and over I saw knots of five to seven people, from kids to grandparents, including aunts and uncles and cousins. And the kids included teens. How many teens do you know who go for a walk with their parents and grandparents?

The various groups would stop and chat as they crossed paths. Discussing how high the water had gotten. How it was nothing compared to ’99. Some reminiscing about the travails of that time. Then they continued on their ways.

I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, the one where my parents moved to later, where my siblings live, where friends live, and I cannot remember seeing as many people out for a walk (not a jog, solo or with a buddy, but a stroll), especially these multi-generational, extended family groups. It was like Halloween, but in broad daylight, without costumes or candy.

The French even have multiple terms for it. Se promener is to take a walk, either for exercise or distraction, while marcher is to walk (kind of the generic brand). Randonner is more hardcore, a hike. The loveliest is flâner, to walk without a goal, just for the pleasure of it.

At one garden, owned by an elderly couple, four cars were parked, taking up most of the road, but it didn’t matter because the river flows over the road there (passage à gue), and crossing wasn’t yet possible. Maybe 20 people were there, all ages, picking out stones deposited by the torrent. Clearly the extended family mobilized to help out. They weren’t grim about it. Everybody seemed to be having great fun.

barrage-waterfall
The barrage had water flowing over the entire width for a day or so, I’m told.

I felt such affection for these neighbors, who themselves have such affection and respect for each other. J’aime la France.

 

Pillows of Swiss Chard Bliss

final-productHere’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.

But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?

shopping
What I bought. The blettes are between the lettuce and the sweet potatoes.

This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?

 

blettes-washedBeing a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.

This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).

other-ingredientsSwiss Chard Pillows of Bliss

a bunch of Swiss chard

one onion, diced

one egg

20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)

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

a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.

1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)

salt and pepper

olive oil

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)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.

stem-and-onion-cookingFirst, you 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.

blanching-blettesBlanche 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 pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.

 

blanched-and-stretchedBeat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.

sauce

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. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.

ready-for-ovenSet 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.

Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.

flooding-right
Our house is just to the right of this!
view-right-after
Same view two days later. And normally, this would be “oooh! the river is high!”

A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.

 

But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.

flooding-bridge
Even with the water level down now, this shot makes me woozy.
bridge-after
Two days later

We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.

 

Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.

view-to-park
To me, this is the worst shot. Beyond the trees is a big park that turned into a lake. Huge.
park-after
Same view two days later. The poor ducks who usually nest at the bend on the right must be refugees now.

Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.

 

Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.

 

Signs of Spring

pink-bloomsLast week was the Chandeleur, or Candelmas, yet another pagan tradition co-opted by religion. While the U.S. has Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, the French celebrate that day by making food. Of course. Specifically crêpes.

88-crepes
Many are missing because they were eaten as soon as the sugar got sprinkled on top.

The reason for crêpes is either that they are round like the sun and Feb. 2 is when the days start getting noticeably longer, or that they are round like coins. If you can flip your crêpe (some say it must be the first one–which is always the hardest–some say any of them but you have to be holding a coin in the other hand), you will be prosperous for the year.

I had planned to post this last week, but I was too busy stuffing my mouth with the first sugar I’ve eaten since Christmas. The Carnivore is the Crêpe Master and he doesn’t flip them, so too bad for us. His mother’s recipe is at the bottom.

Spring does, however, seem to be tapping its foot and pushing winter a bit from behind to get it to step out of the way already or at least move faster. (Do you also hate it when the person behind you in line keeps bumping you or touching you, as if you are holding up the line, when, in fact, there are other people ahead of you? Do they think that they can perhaps annoy you so much that you just leave and let them move up one spot in the queue? Answer: NO. Or perhaps they think that nobody else is feeling the pain of standing in line the way they are?)

Anyway, spring. I looked at temperatures this year vs. last, and January was colder, probably because of that cold spell a few weeks ago. But still, I photographed these irises in bloom on Jan. 30. Irises in January???

irises-1And this camellia bush is ready to bust out. I shot it last year in April here.

rhododendronI keep seeing flowers everywhere, and not just the primroses, cyclamens, pansies and decorative cabbages that towns and villages and homeowners plant for winter. (I do love living in a place where one plants flowers for winter.) The wild almonds are starting to flower.

When we bought our house 15 years ago, every field was a vineyard, as far as the eye could see. It seemed like a good idea–vines send roots deep into the ground and resist the summer droughts, and those roots help hold the soil when the rain beats down in torrents.

bare-trees-and-greenThe vines are many decades old, and it’s easy to think it’s always been like this. But I was reading about life years ago, when most of the population worked the land and grew their own food. It was inefficient, and hunger was a big driver of the French Revolution. Farmers grew a bit of everything–some vineyards, yes, but also wheat, oats, flax, olives, barley and hay. It was far from being a monoculture. As farms got bigger and needed fewer workers, they specialized in one thing or another.

fields-distanceToday, under a program to reduce the quantity of wine produced in order to shore up prices, many vineyards have been uprooted and turned over to other crops, like wheat, sunflowers, beans, sorghum and rape. Since the end of January, some have started to peep above the soil and turn everything green, even as the trees remain bare.

Do you see signs of spring yet?

field

The Carnivore’s Mother’s Crêpes

750 grams flour (6 cups)

1 liter whole milk (4 1/4 cups)

2 tablespoons white sugar

6 eggs

1 tablespoon olive oil

a pinch of salt

butter for cooking

Beat the eggs, milk and oil until well mixed. Add the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. It should be runny, not like pancake batter.

Melt a pat of butter in a shallow skillet. Pour about half a cup of batter into the skillet and rotate to spread the batter evenly. Keep a close eye and turn when it’s brown–with a spatula or, if you’re daring, flip. Cook the other side just enough so it isn’t sticky.

If you want to be a gourmande, sprinkle with sugar right away and keep your stack covered so they stay hot.

Melt another pat of butter before pouring in the next round of batter.

Best eaten warm, but they will keep, covered, for several days. If you haven’t consumed them all before. This recipe serves a crowd (30 crêpes? Something like that).

 

Pineapple Mascarpone Parfait

verrineHere is an easy, high-impact dessert that you can make ahead. Pineapple confit in honey and vanilla, served with refreshing vanilla mascarpone.

It comes from the book “Verrines Toute Fraîches!” by José Maréchal. Verrines are small, transparent glass bowls, usually with straight sides like an Old Fashioned glass, not very big, and used to serve layered appetizers or desserts. They’ve been a big fad in France for several years.

bookI’ve made the recipe many times in the years since I was given this book, and I have tweaked it considerably: I cut the honey and sugar in half,  doubled the mascarpone and reduced the egg (more egg makes the mascarpone looser). I like the contrast of the sweet pineapple with the less-sweet mascarpone; if you want your mascarpone sweeter, you can easily add sugar. Here is my version:

Pineapple Mascarpone Parfait (serves 6-8)

1 fresh pineapple

1 tablespoon honey

1 vanilla bean

500 grams (about 16 ounces) mascarpone

3 egg yolks

2 packets of sucre vanillé (you can substitute 16 grams, or 4 teaspoons, of white sugar plus two teaspoons of vanilla extract)

Cut the pineapple into small chunks; I prefer half an inch but my sous-chef tends to go for inch cubes. Make sure to remove the eyes.

In a skillet with a cover, warm the honey then add the pineapple and vanilla bean. Cover and cook it slowly over medium-low heat. Stir often. Keep an eye for when the liquid starts to disappear and the pineapple turns a nice brown. It can take a good hour. You want the liquid to cook out of the pineapple so the dessert isn’t watery. Let it cool.

Meanwhile, stir together the mascarpone, sugar/vanilla and egg yolks.

dessert-pineapple-and-mascarponeServe in old-fashioned or brandy glasses (brandy glasses are harder to eat from), layering some pineapple at the bottom, then the mascarpone, then more pineapple. Chill until serving. If you’re making it ahead (a day or even several hours), keep the mascarpone covered so it doesn’t dry out.overhead

Boiled in Oil

fondueMost people think of fondue as bread dipped in hot cheese, or fruit into chocolate. But fondue bourguignonne involves cooking cubes of meat in hot oil.

The name indicates it’s a specialty of Burgundy, and those guys know gastronomy. But it’s typically French as well in the total lack of concern about a pot of hot oil on a table (and I’ve been at fondues where the table was less than stable), with a cord running between somebody’s legs and across the room, and nobody seems the least concerned that someone might trip and send boiling oil into the laps of half the diners. And the oil–vegetable oil like rapeseed–must be very hot, or else the meat doesn’t get a nice brown crust and instead comes out gray and soggy.

They are equally unconcerned about splatters. When the pot starts to thrum and gurgle, I am ready to head for the next room with a phone in hand so I can call the fire department and ambulance quickly. In Belgium 911 is 100, but in France, there’s no centralized number–you have to call fire (18)  and ambulance (15) separately. Just another reason to take precautions! Also, I make sure I know where the baking soda is.

A few months ago, after the Carnivore had cooked fries, we had a hot fat incident. Fries are the Carnivore’s domain. I have never in my life cooked them, partly out of terror of deep fryers, partly out of respect for my arteries. But the Carnivore is Belgian, and Belgians are the originators of French fries. I think all 11.2 million of them carry a chip on their collective shoulder over the fact that the French got credit for fries. It’s possibly the only thing the Wallons and Flamands agree on. When I moved to Brussels many eons ago, I actually saw, during my hunt for an apartment, many kitchens with BUILT-IN FRYERS. No stove, no fridge, no dishwasher–those must be supplied by the renter–but never fear, the fryer is as integrated in the apartment as the furnace or toilet.

So the Carnivore was in charge of fries, cooking them per Belgian regulations, with blanc de boeuf, or pure white beef fat, smuggled back from his homeland. The French cook fries in oil, which sends the Carnivore into paroxysms of horror. He cooks them in cow fat to almost done, then lets them rest for two or three minutes so the grease drips out, then cooks them again to brown. The result, I must admit, is excellent. Crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. I consider fries a waste of calories that could be better spent on chocolate, but I will eat his.

blanc-de-boeuf
This is not Crisco.

We were blissfully stuffing our arteries faces when the fryer (turned off) started making strange noises. Now, our house is nothing like our rental apartments. It’s small and not grand at all and used to be the village showers, which means there was no kitchen. We stuck an open kitchen in a corner of the living room/dining room, which means it’s one of those oft-despised “great rooms,” despite its proportions being somewhat south of great.

Thanks to the layout,  we were extremely aware that something was going on with the fryer, yet a reassuring distance from it. Suddenly, POW! It exploded. Grease everywhere. The wall, the ceiling, the sofa whose back butts up against the kitchen counter–a not-so-great side effect of a great room is that cooking disasters have nothing to keep them from spilling into the living room. The kitchen floor was a patinoire of blanc de boeuf.

The mess was cleaned up, and we laid off frites for a while. The incident only reinforced my conviction that anything more than a tablespoon of oil/grease at a time is a deadly enterprise.

raw-meat
The meat–some of it. Why are there not more photos? Because we were eating!

The Carnivore’s mother, however, was known for her fondue bourguigonne, which she served at all family gatherings. This is a little like being known for one’s way with heating up frozen pizza or one’s skill at calling for takeout. With fondue bourguigonne, the host  goes to the butcher to buy meat and then heats up the oil. It’s up to the diners to cook their cubes of meat themselves.

Mother-in-law passed away a few years ago, but the tradition continues: we have fondue bourguignon every year at Christmas time. It’s considered a light interlude between the Gargantuan orgies of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, not to mention all the visits to friends and relatives in between. “Light”: cubes of beef (or chicken, because I’m nearly a vegetarian but one can’t put water-laden vegetables in fondue bourguignonne, so chicken is almost the same thing, or so goes the logic), cooked in oil and served with cold rice mixed with parsley and cream, maybe a green salad, possibly fries (yes, fries and rice, which don’t add up to fried rice) and certainly a huge array of sauces, most notably cocktail sauce (ingredients: bourbon, mayonnaise and ketchup, with proportions in that order).

rice
Parsleyed rice, with LOTS of heavy cream.

Sauces are another typically Belgian thing. The French mostly content themselves with mayonnaise or tartar sauce, and sometimes, if they want to put on American airs, ketchup. But the Belgians have aïoli, Andalouse (my favorite–spicy), barbecue, béarnaise, curry, Hawaiian, Samouraï, and more (yeah, aïoli is from the south of France, but you don’t see it on the menu with fries here). There are little stands everywhere devoted to frites, the way you see ice cream trucks or taco trucks in the U.S. Except these aren’t trucks. They might be storefronts or they might be makeshift shacks on the edge of a parking lot, the smell of grease wafting down the street. Friteries seem exempt from food and building inspection. The menu of sauces is longer than the menu of dishes, which usually consist of fries, fries or mitraillette–literally a machine gun, but in this case a long sandwich with kebab meat, a liter of sauce and FRIES INSIDE THE BAGUETTE! A heart attack on a plate wrapping paper.

mitraillette
A mitraillette. There is a baguette, meat and sauce under those fries. And possibly even raw vegetables like paper-thin slices of tomato and onion.

We had fondue bourguignon twice this holiday season. There was one mega-splatter, but luckily it hit only the empty chair of a niece who had gotten up to get something from the kitchen.

So if you have good health and home insurance, bad cooking skills and a penchant for danger, try fondue bourguigonne. Served with wine, of course!

 

French Onion Soup

onions-not-peeledThe French saying, occupe-toi de tes oignons means “mind your own business.” This post takes the literal translation: “take care of your onions.” It’s a recipe for real French onion soup.

sharpen-knife
To avoid teary eyes when chopping onions, use a very sharp knife!

At my evening gym class in the village, a regular topic of conversation is food (are you surprised?), specifically, “what’s for dinner?” And the answer, especially in winter, tends to be “soupe.”

In olden times in France, and still in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, supper is “le souper.” You can’t miss that it contains the word “soupe.” It’s probably related to the adage: Manger comme un roi le matin, comme un prince le midi et comme un pauvre le soir–Eat like a king in the morning, like a prince at noon and like a pauper in the evening. Paupers got soup.

In France, it’s more common to call dinner “le dîner,” even when soup is the main course. (Souper tends to be reserved for a really late-night meal, say post-theater.)

Many of my friends go on a soup “cure” after an excessive weekend. With the holidays coming, a cure will be needed, though this soup is anything but “lite.”

A friend of ours shared his recipe for delicious onion soup. He protested that it wasn’t a recipe at all. Everything is measured “à vue de nez,” or intuitively/approximately, also often expressed as “au pif” or by the nose.

Onion soup for a crowd (about 8 servings)

About half a stale baguette, in 3/4 inch slices. “Not too much because it gets big”

Beaucoup (about 6 cups sliced) onions. It doesn’t matter what kind the onions are. Just slice them thinly. You need a lot because, contrary to the bread, the onions shrink.

Beaucoup (about 200 grams!  7 oz.) of butter. He would have put more but that’s what was left of the stick. He originally had less, but he dropped in the rest of the stick as soon as his wife stepped away. Don’t tell!

Flour–about two tablespoons

Salt

Pepper

Beaucoup (about a pound) of grated emmental or gruyère cheese

Melt the butter. Stir in the onions and cook until they get a little brown, or at least rosy. Keep stirring so they don’t burn. You’ll see the volume decrease. Don’t cover.

onions-cook-1When they’re a light brown, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour over them, one spoon at a time, and work it in. Keep stirring. Let the flour brown a little so the soup gets a nice color.

add-flour
Note: just a regular spoon will do. No need to level it off with a knife and all that.

Add water bit by bit. This is flexible, but he put in about 5 or 6 liters (about 5 quarts), stirring all the time.

Add salt (three pinches from a pot) and pepper (freshly ground from a mill). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer about 30 minutes.

While it’s simmering, toast the bread (he put it on a tray under the broiler). You want it nice and brown, so the soup has a good color. Then heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit or 200 degrees Celsius.

bread-cheese-layer-1
I clearly overfilled because I couldn’t get all the liquid into the pot.

Arrange the bread in a large ovenproof dish. Put down one layer, sprinkle grated cheese over it, then another layer, more cheese, etc. Don’t over fill with bread! There was sort of a pyramid of bread, with empty space around the edges of the dish.

onions-on-bread-cheeseWhen the onions have cooked their half hour on the stovetop, spoon them onto the bread. Then pour in the broth. Don’t overfill or it will boil over and make a mess of your oven.

add-brothSprinkle more cheese on top.

add-cheese-on-topBake for about 30 minutes. Serve hot with fresh bread.

soup-doneHe said that in his native Normandy, he grew up with onion soup made with milk, but since milk was expensive (it was just after the war) they couldn’t afford to use it for a crowd. I will have to try it with milk, but with real farm milk, not UHT pasteurized homogenized stuff.