Archive for January 2008

How About a Date?

January 31, 2008

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It’s no secret that a date in your past can mean a new family in your future.  In the south of France it’s a double date, involving  our geographical proximity to North Africa and France’s colonial past.  Because we’re just a quick kiss across the Mediterranean from Tunisia and Algeria I can buy fresh dates still on the branch, more delicious than any I’ve ever tasted, and I find harissa, and ras el hanout in just about any shop.  We hear Arabic on the streets, see women in traditional dress, and couscous is on the menu more often than coq au vin

It’s not exactly what I expected before coming here.  On the one hand, I’m fascinated by the diversity, and take full advantage of the culinary implications of having Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian food and ingredients tossed into the melting pot.  But as an American, even one who’d been here several times before, my idea of France was really all about Paris.  Parisian chic, a Parisian accent, and its big city sophistication were spread throughout France, in my imagination.  And then there was Provence, full of lavender and sunshine.  The rest was hazy.

Here in the non-imaginary south, outside the idyll of A Year in Provence, my world is expanding.  A couple of days ago we went to an old small town, where people have been living since the Neolithic.  It’s deep in la France profonde, an out of the way spot you can get to on one lane roads without ever meeting another car.  We arrived at lunch time on Monday, only to find that almost every place to eat was closed.  The two choices that were available: a brasserie featuring couscous and a Moroccan soup as the plat du jour, and the kebab place.  Since we love kebab

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it was an easy choice for us.  But still, it made me wonder.  Was there even any “French” food to be had in this town?  Or are couscous and kebab really French food too?  It’s a familiar question to an American, since we’re always struggling with the question of what is “real American food.”  Our immigrant past guarantees a richly diverse menu, and I’m coming to see that the same forces are at work here in this corner of France.  There’s culture clash, as there’s bound to be, but it all comes together on the plate.

Although it has to be admitted that the influence of Paris extends all the way down to even the remotest of towns, and outside the realm of food.  Because even here, in a little kebab spot in a town you can barely find on the map, filled with raucous laughter and enticing, spicy fragrances, it’s quite possible to see a guy

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dark eyed and olive-skinned, dressed like a rapper from his studded pants to his stocking cap, carrying a purse.  It’s so French.

A Friend In Need

January 27, 2008

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When we came to France we left all of our friends behind, including Beppo’s furry friends Riley and Sushi, both of whom left the planet shortly before we too flew away from all we knew.  Until recently Beppo’s been keeping busy learning about the life of a French cat, just as we’ve been dipping into the human version of la vie française.  But now, things are changing.

While we’ve been making friends here at a relatively nice pace, Beppo has been getting left behind.  A stray cat or two has come into the yard, and at least one has actually come into the house, but this is not Beppo’s idea of fun.  He guards the house with blood-curdling yowls, although if he fights to defend us we’ve seen no signs. 

But when we have guests, Beppo monopolizes their attention.  When I cook, Beppo is right there watching, sniffing, and sampling as much as he can.  At meals, Beppo is likely to occupy a chair at the table with us.  When I brush my teeth, Beppo is in the bathroom drinking from his little water dish.  Sometimes at night he sleeps right on my hands, as if to say “occupy yourself with me above all else.”  I think Beppo’s telling me in every way he knows how that he needs a friend.

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But still we resist.  We love Beppo as if he were an only child, afraid we’d never love another as much, afraid another cat would complicate our lives.  When he looks lonely we pretend we don’t speak cat.  And yet we allow ourselves new friends, as many as possible in fact, without hesitation.  We don’t worry that we won’t love our old friends as much, that having too many friends will make our future tumultuous and messy, that we’ll be forced to choose between them.

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A cat just cannot be expected to do crossword puzzles all day.  He needs a kitten of his own.

The Heart Of The Matter

January 24, 2008

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First, let me apologize to the excellent Barcelona restaurant called, remarkably, El Glop.  They were kind enough to give us a plate to bring home, as well as a delicious dinner, and if you’re ever in Barcelona you really ought to have a meal there.  What you are about to read has nothing to do with them, it’s just an unfortunate linguistic coincidence that I couldn’t resist exploiting. 

In a spate of guilt, inspired by so many comments of the “oh poor baby, too much foie gras and truffles” variety, I decided to change my ways, at least for a day.  While sprawling in a local bistrot yesterday for lunch between French classes, I opted for the most dangerous and least luxurious things on the menu: pied de cochon and tête de veau.  I swear, I did it for you, only for you.

The pied de cochon was as a pig’s foot should be, gelatinous, slippery, savory, and full of bones and toenails.  Honestly, I did that for myself too, since I love the stuff, as you can see here.  The tête de veau, however, was another story.  I’ve only once before eaten calf’s head, and at that time I vowed to all the goddesses never to repeat the experience.  It’s not like there’s a whole head on the plate, staring at you reproachfully, but still, you know how heads are.  My first version was served with the tongue, but mercifully, yesterday’s wasn’t.  The first was gooey, possibly even slimy, horrid except for the salsa verde, which I bravely glopped all over the misery on the plate.  Yesterday’s was meaty, with the scary parts removed, napped with a mild and non-threatening brown sauce, a true comfort food.  Utterly delicious, even I have to admit.

Then today I began preparing to have guests for dinner tomorrow, a dinner featuring pintade, or guinea hen, which is now my favorite fowl.  I asked the butcher to remove the breasts and legs, but to leave the carcasses intact for my soup-making.  Since I need the liver, heart, and gizzards for a stuffing for the dish, I opened each of the three packages she’d given me.  One package of legs, one of breasts, and one of carcasses.  Where were the giblets?  Oh yeah, right, inside the birds where they belong, still firmly attached.  After I’d ripped the heart and liver from their moorings I stopped to take a deep breath.  I’m glad I did, because once revealed the gizzards were as you see them above.  Grassy.  These pintades were eating grass just before their demise, which was evidently not too long ago since it’s all still quite a bright green.

That’s a good thing, I know.  A recently killed bird, still showing proof that it had a life of its own, and that life involved grass.  And where there’s grass there’s fresh air and blue skies and maybe even a bug or two to be had.  It’s a bird’s life.  The fact that they have beautiful blue faces shouldn’t bother me either, but it does, I have to admit.  The fact they they died for me is right up there on the list of things that I have to live with.

So now the legs of two beautiful birds are slowly turning to confit under a sea of goose fat, the carcasses are simmering in the stockpot, and the breasts are reposing in the fridge until tomorrow.  And those giblets?  They’re in the fridge too, waiting for my heart to feel up to cutting away the memories of their grassy past and take a sharp knife to their vitality.

It’s Truffle Time!

January 21, 2008

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Take 3000 eggs, 3 kilos of truffles, 10 litres of olive oil, and a big pail of cream.  That was the recipe of the day at the Truffle Fair in Uzès yesterday, and although it sounds rather plain, it made a delicious snack for 1500 or so people.  As you might imagine, this is cooking on a rather large scale, and requires the assistance of a fork lift and several burly chefs with long-handled wooden shovels.

Want to know how it’s done?  First you’ve got to get your truffles.  Yesterday they were expensive, but then, aren’t they always?

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Under the shadowy arcades of the town’s main plaza, the black diamond vendors spread their wares.  Only the melanosporum or Perigord truffles were for sale, 1000 Euros a kilo was the going rate, and the sellers kept a sharp eye as the tightly packed crowd sniffed the truffles in the dim and musky light.  I bought the three little treasures pictured up top and tucked them deep in my bag, safe from truffle-nabbers.

Meanwhile, out in the open, the cooking is about to get underway.

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While waiting for the fire to burn down to an egg-friendly temperature, the fork lift hoists the giant pan, ready to set it over the coals.

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The chefs strategize and steel themselves for their upcoming labors.

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The coals are judged to be perfect and the frying pan meets the fire.

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Ladies and gentlemen, we have eggs!   It takes just about one hour to scramble 3000 eggs, and the chefs really get a workout.

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Several times the forklift has to back the full pan off the fire to allow it to cool down, while the chefs scrape the bottom to keep the eggs from scorching.

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Finally the eggs form a very soft curd

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and the crowd gathers in close as the serving begins.  It’s 6 Euros a portion, so we share a plate.

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The eggs were incredibly soft and creamy, almost liquid, and very generously studded with truffles.  Once we’d tasted the truffles we had to have more.

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Since every restaurant was serving a truffle menu of some sort, and everyone in town was awaiting their turn to trufficate freely, we hung around under this bell tower until we were rewarded with this:

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a truffle, arugula, and crème fraîche pizza, one of the best pizzas of my life. 

So now I have three small truffles, and about 7 days to use them while they’re fresh.  One I diced up and kneaded into a roll of good butter.  That’s in the freezer and will happily melt onto food for some time to come.  The other two are in the fridge, one sealed into a container of rice, the other is snuggled up with a few eggs.  And now I’m contemplating what to do with them after they lend a bit of their flavor to the eggs and rice.  There’s that leftover foie gras in the freezer, perhaps they’d all like to dance together. Or perhaps I’ll make a paté, or a risotto with the perfumed rice, or an intoxicating sauce for something special.  Or should I just use them to make pizza?

A Birthday In Provence

January 19, 2008

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Food Porn Alert: the food pictured in this post was even more delicious than it looks and is likely to induce lust and envy in viewers.  Your viewing discretion is advised.

Today was Shel’s birthday.  When I asked him what he wanted to do he said “go for a drive in the country and have a nice lunch somewhere.”  Okay, we can do that!

I took him to Les Baux de Provence, to a wonderful restaurant.

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We had the menu du jour, on which there were two choices for each course.  Naturally we had one of each, so we could taste everything.  But before the actual courses, they brought us

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some deliciously salty almonds, olives, and chorizo madeleines, then

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each a bite-sized veal canneloni.  This is the dish Shel was still talking about on the way home.  For entrées we had

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a potimarron soup poured at the table over shrimp and potimarron quenelles and with the shrimpiest-tasting shrimp I’ve had in years, and

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salmon with tiny vegetables, crunchy toasts, and avocado mousseline.

Then there was a fish course.  Mine looked and tasted like the sea had washed right over the table:

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dorade and incredibly briny clams with fennel shavings and a ginger foam.  Shel’s cabillaud with an eggplant confit and polenta was astounding, although a technical error on my part caused the picture to make it look like the cod was still swimming under ten feet of water, so I’ll spare you a seasick moment.

Then onto the meat course

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Roasted lamb with a lamb confit parmentier, and

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pork cheeks caramelized with honey and salsify chips.  That’s the dish I’m still dreaming of.  We went easy on the cheese course, saving room for dessert.

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Probably the most perfect Roquefort I’ve ever had, and an ash-covered chevre.

Shel’s birthday dessert is pictured up top, an apple soufflé, apple mousse, and apple french toast.  I had

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a millefeuille with lemon thyme mousse and the very first, just a bit too soon, fraises de bois and

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a fromage blanc ice cream marbled with red fruit and topped with candied lemon.

Being, as you might imagine, rather full, we decided to have a coffee out on the terrace.

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where we watched the moonrise from our table, before 4:00 in the afternoon.

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As luck would have it, we weren’t done eating.  The mignardises that came with the coffee

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were almost more than we could manage, but not quite.  On the way back to the car we lingered by the fountain

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and stopped for a birthday kiss by the dovecote.

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If you have a birthday coming up, and you know you do, ask to be taken to lunch at La Cabro d’Or.  Trust me on this.

Recipe Of The Day

January 17, 2008

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I’m just starting to appreciate the fact that our local newspaper has a recipe each and every day, and almost all of them look good.  Here you can see a random assortment of recent recipes.  For those statisticians among you who may be wondering about my randomizing technique, I’ll just say that I pulled out all the papers in the recycle bin and cut out their recipes.  We’re mad recyclers here, as is apparently everyone else in France, but some papers do go into the fireplace, so these recipes aren’t a perfectly consecutive assortment and tend to be a bit heavy on the dessert end of the scale.

But what we have is, clockwise from the bottom left: monkfish in a cheeseless pesto sauce, artichoke bottoms stuffed with vegetables, orange cream served in the orange shells, pita stuffed with tuna and vegetables, a flan with pineapple and rum, a crepe cake with a meringue topping and chocolate cream filling, a pear and chocolate tart, and a terrine of chicken livers. 

I’ll start by saying, with a good measure of affection, that our local paper is the sort that mentions every school classroom that got a visit from Santa, every seniors’ club meeting in a 100 kilometer radius, which drug stores are open all night on any given day, and other similarly urgent matters.  So the recipes might be expected to be rather pedestrian, at best.  And while I’m sure it’s true that a more sophisticated paper would have more upscale recipes, think about a small town near you.  Would you expect to find recipes like these in a small paper there each and every day?  Although there’s nothing particularly exotic or wildly creative about any of these dishes, they mostly all sound worth trying, and several look positively good.

In looking through this random peephole into a French kitchen, the thing that strikes me first is the matter of timing.  The pita recipe only takes 20 minutes to prepare, but that’s normal for a sandwich.  The rest of the recipes range from 40 minutes to 2 hours in preparation and cooking  time.  That’s a lot of slow cooking, by today’s standards.  The dishes do rely on a certain amount of pre-prepared ingredients: purchased all-butter puff pastry for the pear tart, a dehydrated court bouillon for the monkfish, frozen artichoke hearts and frozen vegetables to stuff them with, and the pita.  But aside from that, it’s all made from scratch. 

There are certain ingredients, like crème fraiche, powdered almonds, fromage frais for the pita, and vanilla sugar, that are probably not readily available outside of Europe.  Other than that the ingredients are quite ordinary, and you could make any of these dishes at home.  Let me know if you’d like to give any of them a try and I’ll post the details.

What really fascinates me are the assumptions that these are the things that people are likely to want to eat, and that the average reader is expected to spend at least an hour a night in the kitchen.  And that French readers are expected to know how to cook, at a time when American recipe writers are looking for words to replace simple kitchen terms like whisk and sauté, for fear that today’s cook no longer knows what they mean.  A very experienced cook myself, I had to read the crepe cake recipe three times to figure out that there are no instructions for cooking the actual crepes, you just need to know how it’s done.  Challenging some of my other assumptions about French cooking, while there’s rum in the flan, not one of the recipes includes wine as an ingredient, and of the eight recipes only two include cream.

On the other hand, because the quality of the prepared foods that are available for purchase is so high, it’s ridiculously easy not to cook at all in France and still eat well.  So why would a French woman come home from work and spend an hour or two in the kitchen putting dinner on the table? 

I think it’s because mealtime is still more or less sacred here.  Sitting together at the table is the glue that holds the fabric of French society together.  If you want to really tick off a waiter in France, be in a hurry to eat and run.  If you want to offend a drop-in visitor, forget to offer a glass of something.  To mark yourself as a real outsider, just complain about the shops closing in the middle of the day.  Of course everything is closed for two hours around noon!  The people who work in those shops need to go pick up their kids from school and go home for lunch together.  Ok, maybe a few of them sneak in a little housework or even a nap during that time.  But for sure they eat lunch, and preferably in the company of others.

As an experiment, try taking a two hour lunch every day for a week and see what it does for you.  Once the dust settles, I think you’ll find that your life has become richer, even without adding cream.

Foie Gras Frisson

January 14, 2008

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I don’t know about you, but that frisson is a little shudder I get from overindulgence in foie gras.  “Right,” you’re thinking, “like there could ever too much foie gras!” 

But I’m here to tell you that there can be, and that I’ve reached my foie gras limit for the year.  And it has nothing to do with the political brouhaha about how the ducks are fed.  Happily, at this juncture in American history, that discussion is relegated to an upper balcony back row seat in the theater that’s playing the mesmerising  Hillary and Barack Show.  Nope, it’s a simple matter of digestion.

Here in France foie gras is a largely noncontroversial seasonal treat, prepared for the holidays, and then sold at drastically reduced prices afterwards.  We managed to make it through to the new year, mostly reveling in foie gras by products while eating little of the actual foie itself.    But now, when all of the foie gras that’s left in the shops is selling for 50% off its normally exorbitant price, how could I resist?

Of course I couldn’t, and so tonight we sat down to

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another shockingly decadent meal, the aforementioned foie gras, accompanied by slices of rare duck breast piled over chestnuts and shallots sautéed with some chestnut liqueur.

After the first few bites we smiled and agreed that it was delicious.  And at the end of the meal we wiped our lips indelicately and promised each other not to repeat the experience any time in the forseeable future.  I’m hoping that my next few meals will consist of crisp cool fennel slices, bitter endive, gazpacho, and possibly some cucumber sorbet. 

And what’s the problem with that?  It’s that, improbably, I still have 180 grams of  foie gras in the fridge and we don’t want to eat it any time soon.  And much as we love Beppo, it’s a bit high end for cat food, even for a cat that loves duck as much as Beppo does.

So what am I to do?  If you had 180 grams of good quality foie gras to use up in the next few days, what would you do?  I’ve thought of melting it into a sauce meurette and putting it in the freezer, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.  Amazing as it seems, even to me, I don’t want to think about any part of a duck.  If it weren’t dark and raining I’d be thinking about a 10 kilometer walk, followed by a nice glass of lemon juice.  It’s that bad.  I am totally foie gras‘d out.  I’ll duck now while you throw things at me.  I just hope that some of them will be recipes.