Genius Meal Planner

IMG_2947Since we’ve doubled down on being vegetarian, meal planning has been a challenge. Vegetarian meals aren’t just the same as traditional meals minus the meat. They’re a completely different animal (non-animal?).

Instead of grabbing a package of meat, a vegetable and potato and voilà, dinner, things are more complicated. Plus, we make an effort to get complete proteins, even though it’s possible to have some of the amino acids at lunch and the complement at dinner (beans plus rice, for example).

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The Carnivore’s idea of dinner: traditional Alsatian choucroute. This is for one. At the top: miso noodle soup made by the kid.

Our kid has become quite the foodie, doing a lot of cooking and learning techniques from  the Internet, especially from Bon Appétit, whose employees now feel like old friends.

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Pickled red onions, an idea from Bon Appétit, now a staple in our fridge. Such snappy flavor! 

A few weeks ago, local teens were treated to a kind of low-budget TED Talk about food waste, hosted by the company that does municipal solid waste removal, Covaldem. A repeat of the talk in the evening was aimed at adults, with a no-waste tasting afterward. The theater was full.

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Enough.

They even gave away a little booklet of “anti-gaspi” (anti-gaspillage = no waste) recipes by local chefs. For example, autumn vegetable soup with croutons, a velouté (thick soup) of potimarron (a kind of small, sweet pumpkin) with a “tartine” made with the potimarron skin, nuts, and grilled potimarron seeds. The idea was to either use everything, or to transform leftovers.

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The Carnivore’s idea of anti-gaspi. He gets major points for presentation. Something to keep in mind.

The talk pointed out that 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year worldwide, which accounts for a third of food produced. It went through expiration dates (many of which are n’importe quoi–whatever–except for meat and fish), and pointed out ways that supermarkets have been pushed to reduce waste, such as by having a display for discounted food that’s about to expire, or for “ugly” vegetables and fruit, also discounted. They also said restaurants are being encouraged to let diners take home what’s left of their meals, not in “doggie bags” but in “gourmet bags.”

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For tomatoes, especially, the uglier the better.

The talk also pointed out that meal planning can reduce waste. A few days later, a friend told me about an app for meal planning and it’s everything I wanted. It’s called Jow, and it seems to be available only in France. That’s because it links to several chains of supermarkets to make your shopping list, which you can then order online. The app is free, so they must make their money by getting a commission from the supermarkets.

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Rice and squash patties. Not bad, but didn’t hold shape.

I prefer to buy my produce at the market, so I haven’t made any purchases through the app. Curiously, even though the app is French and I never made any language selection, some of the recipes turn up in English. Or partly in English and partly in French. It’s fine with me–it’s how we roll in our house.

First you choose your supermarket (you can put anything, just to continue. A Walter Mitty moment where you can pick your dream French town). Then how many people you’re cooking for and how many are children. Then what you eat: everything/vegetarian/vegan/no pork/no gluten/no dairy.

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More elaborate: gaspacho; zucchini noodles, polenta with pesto, mushroom tofu, red pepper hummus, salad (this kind is called mâche), sprouts.

Next it asks what you have in your kitchen: oven, microwave, stovetop, fryer, blender (and what kind), automatic cooker (Thermomix or other brand–they’re listed). Then you put in how many meals you want to plan: 2? 5? 7?

Et boum! (Not a typo–that’s the French spelling.) Meal ideas, mostly one-dish, with recipes and compiled shopping list. The recipes change each week. Doing it just now, Jow suggested onion quiche with chèvre and honey, shakshuka, eggplant curry, pear and gorgonzola pizza, and sweet potato gratin with chestnuts. If you don’t like something, you click on the remplacer button and it suggests something else.

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Lunch regular: winter vegetable salad. Often involving beets.

Click on the red shopping cart to get your shopping list. There, you can eliminate items that you already have in your pantry or add other things you need, like breakfast foods or dish soap. The entire list for the five menus above come to €49.40 at Leclerc.

I made the eggplant curry, but I had only a tiny eggplant, so I added other vegetables (mushrooms and spinach stems….yes stems. You can get bags of baby spinach at the store but at the market it’s much bigger, sometimes with the roots still attached). Last week there was a quiche with roasted butternut squash and red onion; I substituted leeks and zucchini. I also made the risotto with red peppers.

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The risotto with red and yellow peppers, and roussilous mushrooms sautéed in butter with parsley.

Other suggestions under vegetarian: onion tart tatin; Tunisian lablabi; roasted camembert; crunchy tofu with quinoa and broccoli; roasted tomatoes with feta; chèvre and spinach tourte; eggplant parmesan; lentil and avocado salad; salad with dried apricots and spice bread; beet, chèvre and nut quiche; zucchini crumble; pasta with muchrooms; gnocchi with spinach and gorgonzola; polenta with roasted tomatoes. And you can click on more recipes. There are other buttons to try: favorites, new, exotic, autumn, express, desserts, healthy, veggie, gluten-free.

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The mushrooms cooking. They are heaven. A local specialty, from the Black Mountains.

It’s easy to eliminate things you don’t want. The recipes are quick and easy and they give an idea of reasonable portion sizes. Some, like the tarts and quiches, are for four–you can’t really make a quiche for two–so we have leftovers for lunch. I realize that while I eat very healthy–everything homemade, heavy on vegetables–I eat too much. Portion control is the very French way of dieting. My Fitbit tells me that even with running I barely pass 2,000 calories in a day, far less on the days I don’t run, then something has to give. FitBit’s calculations are based on averages for age, height and weight. At some point recently, I seem to have passed into a new category, because for the same number of steps in a day it was telling me I was burning significantly fewer calories. Wake-up call! How middle-age spread happens.

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A favorite here: zucchni fritters with fresh salsa.

Years ago, I tried to do the same thing as Jow, but using a spreadsheet, not with all the wonders of app technology. It was an utter failure–clumsy, bulky, hard to change, hard to organize. I am sure there are other apps out there, ones that connect to your local supermarket. But if you want some meal planning help with French flavor, check out Jow.

This isn’t sponsored. I just really like Jow. If you have similar apps that you like, please mention them in the comments so readers in your country can find out about them.

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No recipe needed.

 

A Vegetarian Take on a French Classic

eggplant 4 kindsEven though back in the day, people didn’t eat much meat–it was too expensive, and only for special occasions–they did tend to put a little into everything. A cassoulet was mostly beans, with a sausage and pieces of pork and/or duck thrown in for flavor, not the current equation of a duck leg plus sausage plus pork per person. I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to re-adapt classic dishes using only vegetables.

This kind of cooking doesn’t require a recipe. It’s about process, which works whether you are cooking for two or 20. If you put in two onions instead of one, it will still be delicious. It isn’t like baking, where if you put in two eggs instead of one it might not turn out.

In the final installment of vegetarian dinner party recipes, we feature the main dish: a daube of eggplant and chickpeas. I considered including mushrooms, but then didn’t. You certainly can; you even can replace the eggplant with mushrooms completely. I chose eggplant because it acts a lot like meat (mushrooms do the same). There are good-sized pieces (I went for inch cubes). The mouth feel is similar to well-cooked meat. It’s filling. It plays well with other ingredients. eggplant japaneseThe chickpeas were for protein, though in light of the eggs and cheese in the other dishes, we weren’t going to be short in that department.

A daube is a kind of stew, but the liquid is not as thick as stews you might know. It’s also not as liquid, more of a sauce than a soup. It’s great for entertaining because it cooks low and slow for a long time. It simmers away independently while you attend to other things. And if guests are late or the apéritifs last longer than you expected, no problem–it isn’t something that has to go into and come out of the oven on time and be served immediately. It can wait another 10, 20, 30 minutes. It can wait an hour. A daube lets your dinner party follow its own schedule, follow its own heart.

For some reason, calling something la daube is an insult, to mean bad quality. According to le Figaro, the word daube dates to the 16th century, coming from the Italian word dobba, or marinate. Then some folks around Lyon used the term to speak of rotten fruits and meat, and thus it became an insult. So unfair!IMG_3100Daube aux Aubergines et Pois Chiches (Eggplant and Chickpea Stew)

serves 4

2 medium eggplants (one per two guests), cut into inch cubes

8 oz. (250 g) chickpeas (I used canned; if you use dry chickpeas, you need to cook them first), drained

1 medium onion, chopped

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

5 oz. (140 g) can of tomato paste

1 cup red wine

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano…)

Fresh parsley

Generously salt the eggplant cubes and place in a colander. Let them sit and sweat for about an hour, then rinse quickly and squeeze the liquid out with your hands.

In a heavy pot with a tight lid, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat, then add the onion. Cover so the onion sweats but doesn’t brown/burn. Add the garlic. When the onion is transparent, turn up the heat a little and add the eggplant, letting it brown a bit, so you get that carmelized umami.

Add the wine and tomato paste, stirring well to mix them. Raise the heat so it starts to boil, then turn down the heat to as low as possible. Stir in the chickpeas and cover the pot. I separated the parsley leaves from the stems, reserving the leaves for garnish and chopping the stems, which I also stirred into the stew. Let it simmer (mijoter) for at least 45 minutes. Stir from time to time, letting the liquid on the lid fall back into the pot. That’s a good time to check the seasonings and add salt and pepper if needed. If the daube seems dry, add water (or wine). Taste a piece of eggplant–it should feel cooked, but you don’t want it to cook to the point of turning into mush. If you’re making it in the morning, you can turn it off and warm it up later.

One way to do a slow-cooking dish like this, besides in a slow cooker or a crockpot, is to put it in the oven. Make sure the lid is tight, and you don’t have to stir at all. Because I made this during the heat wave, I avoided the oven.

Serve with rice. Polenta works, too. Even potatoes. Something to soak up the sauce.

At our dinner party, our friend brought homemade desserts. I’ve shared both recipes before–baba au rhum and crème catalan.

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Baba au rhum

 

 

 

 

French Vegetable Terrine

IMG_3107Here’s an easy vegetable recipe that’s perfect for summer and pretty enough to garner oohs and aahs from dinner guests. You can serve it as a starter, but I liked it as a side to a vegetarian daube that was the main. I wanted a side dish that was structured, so the non-meat-eaters wouldn’t have a plate full of lumpy mush. Of course the vegetarian daube had vegetables but it’s nice to have variety on the plate. And it was an appealing addition for the guests who had steak.

Terrines are classic in French cuisine. Often they’re made with meat or fish. You can have a terrine of foie gras, but that isn’t the same as pâté of foie gras–a terrine is made of pieces layered into a deep, rectangular dish of the same name, and baked, whereas pâté is smooth–a paste. (If you see a circumflex, the hat symbol like this: ˆthen insert an “s” after the letter wearing the hat and you’ll probably recognize the word in English. Examples include forêt/forest), hôpital/hospital, rôti/roast. But the circumflex gets used for other things, too, such as differentiating when a word is spelled the same but means something completely different like sur (on) vs. sûr (sure/certain).)

In this case, the terrine might not be officially a terrine because I didn’t bake it. On the other hand, some of the fish terrines are made cold. Who cares, right? Restaurants are making ever-greater leaps of imagination in the naming of their dishes so that it’s hard to guess what will show up. I got the idea from things I’ve eaten and photos online and combined the parts I liked while omitting the things I didn’t. For example, one recipe called for frozen peas, but it’s summer and I have a bounty of fresh vegetables at my fingertips, so I used fresh zucchini. Don’t worry about the proportions too much–it will turn out fine with a little more carrot or a little less ricotta. Just make sure you really cook the vegetables you choose, otherwise you’ll have a hard time getting a pretty, clean slice.

The only hitch is that it really needs to be made the day before so it can set. But that’s usually a plus when entertaining, isn’t it?IMG_3099Vegetable Terrine  

2-3 carrots, cut into small pieces

2 zucchini, cut into small pieces

3 red peppers (or red, yellow, green), WHOLE!

A bunch of fresh basil or other herbs, chopped finely

1 packet of unflavored gelatin (about 8 grams)

1 cup (25 cl) crème fraîche or half and half cream

400-ish grams (about 1 2/3 cups) ricotta (I had a 500g tub and used some of it for the tarte soleil and carrot rillettes in my earlier post)

Roast the peppers. The easiest way is to put them whole on the grill–they are easier to turn and it’s easier to roast the curvy parts. You also can do it under a broiler. When the skin is charred all over, put the peppers in a paper or plastic bag to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them in half from stem to bottom to remove the seeds. Remove the skins.

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Way easier to roast and to peel when the peppers are whole.

Line a loaf pan with plastic film. Leave plenty of overlap so that you have enough to fold over the top. Push the film down into the corners. You want it to really follow the pan or your terrine will have a weirdly shaped top.

Cut the carrots into small pieces. Cook in boiling water until they’re soft. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and put into a bowl to cool. Keep the cooking water. Drop the zucchini into the same water and cook until soft. Strain and put into a separate bowl.

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Mashed carrot and mashed zucchini. I left the skin on the zucchini to get more color.

In a small bowl, put about 1/2 cup of water, then sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let it sit while you mash the carrots and the zucchini separately with a fork or potato masher. It’s very easy and not worth the cleanup of a blender or food processor. Season each with salt and pepper.

In another bowl, mix the ricotta with the herbs. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat the cream. Add the dissolved gelatin and stir. Then split the cream mixture three ways–into the carrots, the zucchini and the ricotta.

You have some options here. I saw a gorgeous photo of a terrine with a glistening red top of pepper, but I think that next time I’ll cut strips and make a design of diagonal stripes. In any case, set down your terrine top in the bottom of the loaf pan. If you use entire halves of pepper, squeeze them close together so you don’t end up with gaps.

Then pour in the layer of ricotta, then the layer of carrot, then the layer of zucchini. I did it like that for maximum color contrast, not to have the orange carrot next to the red pepper. You can get fancy and, for example, have extra carrots that you cut in half lengthwise and cook until they’re very tender. Just lay them down lengthwise in the dish and pour the mixture over them and they’ll show up very pretty when you cut it open. If you have extra pepper you can make another layer with that. IMG_3067Fold the plastic film back over the top and refrigerate for at least six hours. When it’s time to serve, peel back the film and place a plate or tray over the loaf pan, then flip the entire thing, remove the pan and peel off the plastic film. I wouldn’t try to lift it out and turn it over.

My terrine pan is enormous: 11″x7″ (28x18cm). In the future I will do it with a smaller loaf pan, 9″x5″ (23x13cm) so that the layers will be thicker and prettier.

This is one of those high-impact, pretty dishes that’s easy to make. You can get creative, with different vegetables and pieces of vegetables that make designs when cut. Why not!!

 

Midsummer’s Night Dinner Party

IMG_3079We had a little get-together last weekend, and I wanted to share some dishes with you. But first, some exciting news: We’re featured on Distant Francophile, on the “Franco-Files” audio interviews. Janelle, the Distant Francophile herself, visits France regularly and writes a great blog about French style, travel tips, culture and more.  I was very flattered to be included. We talked a lot about buying property in France and renovating it.

On to the dinner: Everything was made ahead, no last-minute slaving in a hot kitchen. Like most people in France, even in the south of France, we don’t have air conditioning. But the evenings are cool and the climate is dry enough that we don’t battle bugs. It’s ideal for using our outdoor dining room, a pergola surrounded by stone walls.

Our neighbors and our kid are vegetarian; I am 99.5% vegetarian, too. When I was dating the Carnivore, he asked me, warily, whether I was vegetarian. In my mind, either you are or you aren’t, like being pregnant, or being an art thief. There’s no, “it depends.” Thus, having a hamburger once a year and steak tartare maybe twice a year, plus a chicken a couple of times, and fish, too, made me anything but vegetarian, even if the total came to once or twice a month. Certainly not once or twice a day, which is the Carnivore’s case. So I have been a huge disappointment in the meat department, especially because he doesn’t count chicken or fish as meat.

Anyway, my plan was to have a complete vegetarian meal, and he would grill ridiculously gigantic steaks for the meat-eaters. I wasn’t interested in the usual vegetarian option of making a menu and just leaving out the meat for the vegetarians–“let them eat potatoes.” I wanted to flip that and make a vegetarian menu and just add meat for the carnivores.

For starters, we had crudités with ranch dip (huge hit in France); oeufs mimosa (deviled eggs); and hard sausages.

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Tarte soleil with carrot rillettes in the bowl in the center.

The entrées were tarte soleil with zucchini and tomato, carrot rillettes and a clafoutis with cherry tomatoes. Une tarte soleil is just a tart with the crust cut to look like a sun. Very pretty. And while clafoutis is typically a dessert, this was a savory version with cheese.

 

The main course was a daube, or thick stew, of eggplant and chickpeas, served with potatoes–same as for the steak eaters. And there was a vegetable terrine on the side. I wanted the vegetable side dish to be cold, pretty, and something I could serve as a piece, not by the spoonful. It was an esthetic choice. I didn’t want the vegetarian plates to be just splotches of undefined stuff.

You never know the secrets people will spill after a few glasses of wine. The secrets cascade, too. One person divulges something, and, receiving nothing but empathy and caring from those gathered, someone else is emboldened to share something as well. One friend described being taken from his hard-working but impoverished single mother and shipped to a convent, where the nuns were cruel (this was a common theme in the friends’ stories). This guy is the sweetest, calmest, gentlest person. So many people who have had bad childhoods turn out with their kindness broken. It’s beaten out of them. But not him. And it all made me think of how the scars of separation never heal, even seven decades later. He described the scene of being taken from his mother in minute detail. Children belong with their parents. I have several friends who are foster parents, and some of the cases are heartbreaking proof that at times children are not safe with their parents. But then there are cases of cruel bureaucracy–back in the day it was against single mothers; today it is, in some places, against parents with brown skin fleeing violence that has its roots in the very country they’re fleeing to–their hoped-for safe haven created and fed the dangers in their homelands that caused them to run.IMG_3080Another friend is from Normandy. That I always knew, and I always knew his age. But what I failed to put together before is that he was born in 1941. Think of what was going on in Normandy in the 1940s–some of the worst of World War II. He said his earliest memories were the planes buzzing overhead and the German trucks trundling past the house. Can you even imagine raising children smack in the middle of war? But if you can’t escape…. And of course, the problems didn’t end with V-E Day. Communities were destroyed, food was rationed, malnutrition was rampant. Our kid listened, eyes wide, to his very unusual childhood memories. Talk about making history come to life. It’s too bad elders aren’t tapped in a better way as a resource for teaching.

There are titillating secrets, too. I heard about one villager, known as TinTin, who apparently quite the womanizer when he was young. To get even, his wife had an affair with one of his buddies…and got pregnant. As the son grew, he looked exactly like the buddy; it’s true he doesn’t look a bit like TinTin. I used to think he was always mad, and steered clear–our kids were in school together. But now I wonder whether his expression was of sadness, of probably knowing the story of his birth, even though TinTin raised him as his own. And I never would have guessed Mme. TinTin was the scheming, nasty person described; I knew her only as the very prim and proper lady, whom I would greet as she meticulously swept her front step.

Back to the recipes!

Tarte Soleil

1 premade flaky pie crust (pâte feuillété…you can get a bunch of different kinds here).

2-3 tablespoons of soft cheese: cream cheese, ricotta, Boursin. Just so it spreads.

summer vegetables, sliced very thin. I used two zucchini and a tomato. I peeled the zucchini, cut rounds, then cut the rounds in half.

2 tablespoons of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Spread out the pie crust on a large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Mine were too small, so I turned one over. The crust extended past the edge a little but didn’t slump.IMG_3087Put a bowl about 5-6 inches (12-13 cms) in diameter in the middle of the crust. Smear the cheese on the pie crust around the bowl. Then arrange the vegetables. I made two rings, facing opposite directions.IMG_3089Remove the bowl and cut the pie crust in the center as shown below. IMG_3090Fold back the dough over the vegetables. Brush with olive oil and bake until the crust is brown. Delicious at room temperature.IMG_3091

Carrot Rillettes

Rillettes are made from meat or fish, cooked very, very slowly in their own fat until they fall apart into shreds. The vegetarian version gets its name because the carrots fall to shreds and you can spread the stuff on bread, but that’s where the similarities end.

2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds

3 oz. or about 1/3 cup (75g) soft cheese like cream cheese, ricotta, St. Môret….I used cream cheese for both this and the tarte soleil, since the tarte requires so little.

Boil the carrots until they’re soft. Drain. Use a fork to smash them roughly into chunks. You don’t want purée.

When cool, mix the carrots with the cheese; salt and pepper to taste. You can jazz it up with spices–cumin is good.

Spread on baguettes or toast.

IMG_3096Tomato Clafoutis

Usually clafoutis is a dessert, made with cherries. The batter is similar to the batter for crêpes, but instead of individual, thin pancakes, you pour it all into a pan.

4 eggs

1 cup/120 g flour

1 cup/25 cl milk

2 oz/50g parmesan, finely grated (please don’t use the ready-made stuff!)

30-50 cherry tomatoes (small ones are better, but you need more of them)

thyme

peppercorns

Butter for the baking dish

Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Beat the eggs. Add the flour, then thin out the mixture with the milk so you don’t get lumps. Add the parmesan. Let it rest 20-30 minutes.

Butter and flour a 9×12-inch baking dish. Pour in the batter. Then drop in the tomatoes here and there. Sprinkle with thyme and peppercorns. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Then you can set the oven to broil for a minute to make the top browner, if you like.

Serve at room temperature.

I didn’t have enough tomatoes from our garden, and the tomatoes I found at  the market were pretty large, with the result that they produced a lot of juice.. Look for the smallest size you can. A mix of colors is pretty.

You can do this other ways: instead of parmesan, try mozzarella (you’ll want to add some salt to the batter; note that this version doesn’t have any because parmesan is pretty salty).

More recipes on Friday!

 

 

 

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.

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.