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.

French Takeout

meat-in-sauceTakeout isn’t a thing in France, at least not in the New York-millions-of-menus-under-the-door sense.

Aside from pizza and Chinese food, and of course McDonald’s, restaurants don’t usually do dishes à emporter–to take away.

The French have their own forms of takeout. You just have to know where to look.

butcher-display
Above and below, some of the goodies at Pettenuzzo, a boucherie at 30 rue Barbès in the Bastide of Carcassonne. There’s aways a line, which usually is a good sign! Front row: taboulé, salad of pork hocks, potato gratin, hachis parmentier de canard, which is ground meat (duck here, usually hamburger, like a sloppy joe) with mashed potatoes on top and melted cheese.
butcher-display-2
Front row, from left: pork blanquette (cooked in a white sauce), tongue in sauce, rabbit in mustard, veal sauté, beef cheeks.
crepes-au-jambon
If the other options are too exotic, how about some ham-filled crêpes?

This can be especially useful if you’re renting an apartment for your vacation and you have a kitchen at your disposal. After all, it can get to be a bit much–for the budget and the waistline–to eat all one’s meals in restaurants. Not to mention that doggy bags aren’t done in France. You can’t just eat half and take the rest home for the next day.

The top place for takeout is la boucherie, or the butcher. France still has lots of small butcher shops, which often have homemade dishes on offer as well as raw meat. I counted 24 mom-and-pop boucheries in the yellow pages for Carcassonne. And if the butcher has volaille–poultry–there’s a good chance they also sell roasted chickens.

p1060174
Left, scallops in cream; middle, zucchini gratin; right, tartiflette–a kind of French cheesy potatoes, with onions and bacon included (as if cheesy potatoes couldn’t get any better!).
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Marinade of shrimp and scallops…
p1060171
Sausages, pâtés and cassoulets ready to reheat. The two photos above, this one and the one below are from Les Mexicots, 27 rue du Dr. Albert Tomey, in the Bastide of Carcassonne–next to les Halles–which specializes in poultry but also has, well, everything.

Similarly, un traiteur, or caterer, might have dishes to go, though some only do banquets. You’ll immediately see by looking in the window whether takeout is a possibility.

The supermarket usually has a wide selection of prepared dishes as well as salads. Not a salad bar kind of salads–no lettuce is involved–but grated carrots with a white vinaigrette, grated celery root, taboulé, etc. In fact, I’ve never seen a deli-style salad bar in France, though maybe they exist in bigger cities.

couscous-stand-1
A line for homemade couscous at the Carcassonne market. The veggies are below, left, and the semoule, right.

The outdoor markets have stands, more akin to food trucks without the truck, selling prepared dishes from couscous to paella to Chinese dishes to traditional French specialities like cassoulet and aligot–yet another form of cheesy potatoes. There are trucks whose sides open up to show rows of rotisserie chickens, with the grease dripping onto a bed of potatoes at the bottom. Good enough to make you cry!

p1060168
Paella is almost gone. He starts making it early in the morning right there at the market.
p1060169
Also from M. Paella: calamaris Catalan style, chicken in wine, and a stew of bull meat (also cooked in wine).

Food trucks make the rounds, especially of villages and roundabouts, selling pizzas, quiches, crêpes, and sometimes other things. One that used to come to our village had specialties of Sète, a town on the coast.

tarte-oignon
At les Halles: an onion tart, cheese soufflées, carrot balls and roast chicken….below, two kinds of salad of “muzzle”–pork snout.
langue-de-boeuf
More at les Halles: beef tongue.

You can get a jar of homemade cassoulet from a market vendor or, at the butcher or the indoor market, called les Halles, a bowl of homemade cassoulet big enough for three or four people, ready to pop into the oven.

 

ris-de-veau
Ris de veau, or sweetbreads, in a sauce of morel mushrooms. The Carnivore’s favorite food is ris de veau, though in a white sauce. Almost gone, only two lumps left….

The day I decided to shoot at les Halles, I arrived late–around 11:30–and many of the offerings were nearly sold out. Proof they were good!

 

 

 

 

Yum! Fungus Among Us

lacteres-ready-to-washLiving in France has overturned some of my long-held principles, including but not limited to a strong opposition to mushrooms.

market-de-parisGrowing up, mushrooms were those rubbery bits that came out of a can, often in a thick, white “cream” sauce. They squeaked when you bit them. Irredeemably revolting.

market-pleuroteI eventually made peace with raw mushrooms, and then opened up to others. (Chanterelles? YES. Truffles? Double YES.) The variety of mushrooms here is just amazing. According to the Société Mycologique de France, the country has 1,384 edible mushroom varieties out of about 16,000 species; 514 are toxic or deadly. The society has a semi-useful chart that matches the scientific name with the common French name.

market-2We play it safe and buy our mushrooms at the market. Our No. 1 favorite, shown in the top photo, are the lactaires, also known as roussillous or russulacées, or, more specifically, the lactaire délicieux. Yup. The Latin name is Lactarius deliciosus, so it’s official.

market

market-box-of-wine
Mushrooms in the foreground … and what do we spy atop the crates just beyond? Why it’s a box of wine!

If you think the name sounds related to milk, you are right–they emit a milky substance when the cap or spores are broken. Since the name of the Milky Way in French is la voie lactée, somehow my mind puts these mushrooms amid the stars, which I find fitting, because they are heaven on a plate.

market-3

There are a couple of ways to cook lactaires: straight up in butter or in a persillade of chopped parsley, garlic and butter. Here’s how:

lactere-mushrooms

Step 1: Clean them. You might notice that the wild mushrooms pictured above have pine needles and grass and dirt on them. Wipe off the tops with a damp paper towel and gently brush the underneath. Be gentle! Set them out to dry.

Step 2: cut off the bottoms of the stems. You can chop up the rest of the steps to cook.

lacteres-start-to-cook
Team Just Butter. See the bits of stem? More goodness.

Step 3.: Make your persillade, if you’re going that route: Finely chop a small bunch of parsley and a couple of garlic cloves.

lactere-mushrooms-cooking
Team Persillade.

Step 4: Melt some butter (don’t be stingy) in a frying pan over medium heat. Prepare yourself for amazing fragrance. They smell a little like a white cake baking. They don’t taste sweet, but the flavor is delicate. Cook stem-side up. Don’t turn.

lacteres-in-the-pan

They’re done when they’re hot and have browned ever so slightly. We had them with pan-fried steak, roasted tomatoes (we still get garden tomatoes!) and little grenaille potatoes.

What you see in the pan above set us back about €4 (they were €13 per kilo, down from €14 the week before).

And now for a few beautiful, but not-for-humans, mushroom marvels:

wild-white

The next one looked for all the world like a Thumbelina version of a chopped-down tree:

wild-flat-front-view
top view
wild-flat-side-view
Side view

This one was also very flat, but the top glowed translucent, like polished stone:

wild-flat-gray

While these might not be comestible, it looked like somebody had been nibbling:

wild-black-closewild-very-black

wild-black

So many kinds…

wild-beige

A tiny, perfect globe.

wild-little-button

Crème de la Crème

chantillyHow do you say “whipping cream” or “heavy cream” in French?

I had tried with crème fraîche épaisse, but that didn’t work. I forget what the recipe was, but my cream didn’t rise no matter how hard I whipped. In fact, we ended up with butter (and it was delicious).

epaisse
Left to right, whole thick cream, light thick cream and very light thick cream

Crème fraîche épaisse (thick fresh cream) is similar to sour cream, though not quite as sour. And it comes in full fat–entière–or light–légère. Sometimes even lighter than light. Usually it’s in a tub, but we recently saw it in these soft packages.

3-kinds
Full-fat liquid cream. The one on the left is in a UHT package; the others are to be kept refrigerated.

Then there’s crème fraîche liquide (liquid fresh cream), but it can have a wide variety of fat content, even when it’s entière. The one for whipping is labeled fleurette.

I cannot believe it took me this long to discover but there is actually a star system for crème fraîche.

starsIs it good for a sauce in a poêle (saucepan), or is it better in the four (oven)? Or for chantilly (whipped cream)? Four stars for whipped cream–bingo.

milk
UHT milk

The dairy products section of a French supermarket is vast. There’s an entire aisle for yogurt, and sometimes two for cheese. Milk, however, tends to be sold in UHT (ultra-high temperature) packages that don’t need to be refrigerated. Crème fraîche also is available in UHT packages. The fresh crème fraîche section usually is near the butter.

There’s a sweet song about whipped cream that’s usually sung as a round (canon in French). While anglophone kids grow up singing “row, row, row the boat,” French kids sing an ode to whipped cream. That kind of sums things up. Here’s an adorable video of three teachers trying to herd cats direct a choir of little ones. Maybe you can detect the melody.

Battez la crème, Battez la crème, Battez la crème, Battez la crème
De la crème fraîche que l’on fouette gaiement
Parfum vanille, un peu de sucre blanc
On l’aime à la folie, la crème chantilly

Beat the cream, beat the cream, beat the cream, beat the cream
Some fresh cream that we whip gaily
Vanilla flavor, a little white sugar
We love it crazily, the whipped cream

sucre-vanille
Vanille sugar. Liquid extract is hard to find.

Pizza on the Grill

dressed
Somebody doesn’t like anchovies…

It’s hot here. Of course, it isn’t the heat but the humidity, and usually we have no humidity. But for a couple of days over the weekend, the wind changed to the east–marin–and left us gasping for air.

The question of “what’s for dinner?” became reduced to “what wouldn’t be too hot to make?”

SliceOne of our favorite fallbacks is pizza. But it’s out of the question to crank an oven to the maximum heat when it’s so stifling. So we did it on the grill.

We have been up to these antics since the turn of the century. But we got lulled into complacency with delicious pizzas just down the street in summer. Unfortunately, those aren’t available this year, so we were motivated to try the grill again.

Pizza(s) on the grill (serves 4):

1 cup warm water

1 package yeast

a pinch of sugar

2 3/4 cups flour

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp salt

couple of tablespoons of herbes de provence, or at least oregano

tomato paste (a can about 3 inches tall–142 ml or about 5 fl. oz.)

garlic–minced

toppings for your pizza

cheese

Dissolve a pinch of sugar into a cup of warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on top, then swirl so it also dissolves. Let it sit until a nice layer of foam forms.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir the flour with the salt and herbs. Then drizzle in the olive oil and stir it into relatively fine bits. Add the foamy warm water/yeast. Knead with your hands for a while (oil your hands with olive oil before to keep the dough from sticking). If it’s too soft, add a little more flour. I start low and add rather than end up with a hard brick of dough.

Hold the dough in one hand and drizzle more olive oil into the bowl with the other. Again with one hand, smear the oil around the bowl and drop the dough back in. Cover with a clean dish towel and leave in a warm spot, preferably in the sun, for about an hour. The longer the better.

Now make some pizza sauce: tomato paste (dilute with about 1/2 can of water), garlic, more herbs. Assemble little bowls of what you want to top your pizza. We did diced red peppers, sliced Serrano ham, sautéed onions and anchovies. Maybe we go overboard, I don’t know.

Also slices of mozzarella cheese, and, because we’re in France, grated emmental. The sous-chef likes thick slices of cheese, but if you slice thinner, it will melt better.

ingredients
Ingredients carried out to the grill on a tray, covered with the most practical net to keep flies off. Clockwise from top left: caramelized onions, Serrano ham, mozzarella, red peppers, anchovies, sauce. Emmental in the bag.

Prepare the grill. Not a big fire, but you want it to last for a few pizzas, unless your grill is big enough to cook more at the same time.

roll doughWhen the dough has about doubled, divide it into two, three or four parts, depending on whether you want to do individual ones or share. We share because then everybody eats at the same time.

Roll out each ball on a floured surface. We have a wooden pizza paddle, which makes the transfer to the grill a lot easier. This is the moment of truth, where you might botch it. If the dough lands in a blog, it’s impossible to pick up from the hot grill. Take your time and slide the dough in the direction of the grill rods rather than perpendicular to them.

grilling
This is the hardest part. You see we didn’t get it perfectly flat. Yes, that’s a crown on the iron plate on the back of the grill.

Let the crust brown a little–not too much because you’re also going to cook the other side. Another moment of truth–it sometimes browns fast, so watch closely.

brown doughThen remove the crust, turn it over, and spread your sauce on the browned side. Garnish and return to the grill. If you have a cover, all the better because your cheese on top will melt. We have an enclosed grill with no door, so it mostly melted.

 

Watch the bottom more than the top, because that’s what risks burning. Pull it off and serve. While one is cooking, prepare the next. We planned for three smaller pizzas but in the end did two larger ones.

doneBon appetit!