Archive for April 2008

The Scorpion Chronicles

April 28, 2008

This is the latest scorpion to haunt my dreams.  Because I know that some of you doubt that scorpions really exist in France, I got as near as I dared and made this portrait.  And because scorpions don’t necessarily sit still to have their picture taken, you see him  just as he exists in my dreams, a bit fuzzy, inchoate anxiety incarnate, horrifyingly larger than life, freshly knocked off the ceiling over the bed and awaiting death on the bedside rug.  A death soon followed by a quick flushing down the tubes on his part, and a sleepless hour of ceiling-scanning on ours.

Sad to say, at the very moment the scorpion appeared, the bottle of lavender essence was wide open and wafting through the room.  Ok, maybe it wasn’t wafting all the way up to the ceiling, but then, if that was too far to waft, what good was it?  So now I have to report that although I wanted to believe, tried my best to make it true, loved the idea of lavender as the natural scourge of scorpions, this morning I called the exterminator.

True: exterminators use poison.
True: we put bees and spiders out doors as gently as possible.
True: scorpions are part of the ecosystem.
True: they were here before we were.
True: it’s either them or us.
Truer than true, it’s going to be us.

Sorry, Friends of Scorpions.  Sorry, Friends of Lavender.  Sorry, innocent scorpions who mean us no harm.  We’ve got to be able to sleep at night, and I want to dream sweetly of lavender.  Only lavender. Scorpion-free fields of lavender, just like everybody’s dream of the south of France.

One last, truly scary sorpion can be seen here.

Ma Belle Mère Est Arivée

April 25, 2008

After two flights and a long car ride, my mother-in-law arrived chez nous.  Really, about all she wanted to do when she got here was to close her eyes and put her feet up on something that wasn’t moving, and Beppo decided to be her partner in crime.

The house is clean and full of flowers

the fridge is stocked, the weather is warm, and my mother-in-law has come to visit.  Really, what more could anyone want?

Food For A Rainy Day

April 20, 2008

Yet another in a series of rainy days.  Nothing special in Seattle, an everyday sort of day.  You go out and do whatever you want to do, because if rain kept you home in Seattle you’d be housebound, a perpetual hermit.  But here, a rainy day is really noticeable.  When you walk everywhere you go, it’s not nearly so much fun in the rain.  And since you’re always carrying groceries while walking, and the downpours can be truly torrential, that’s even less fun.  The vegetables in your basket do fine in the rain, but the bread really objects to a cold shower.  After two rainy days life starts to get discouraging.  The stuff you put off doing yesterday is piling up, and still it’s another stay-at-home sort of day.  Three or four rainy days in a row, oh là là.  Time to make soup.

This soup of leeks and potatoes, Potage Poireaux Pommes de Terre, is a classic springtime warmer-upper.  There are as many versions as there are cooks, but this is how I made it today.  And really, I can’t think of how it could have been any better.  It’s light and savory and fresh-tasting, warming and soothing, a medley of comfort.

2 oz butter
10 oz thin young leeks, white and pale green parts
10 oz potatoes
1 small onion
4 cups water
1 chicken bouillon cube
3 T cream
salt, pepper, grated nutmeg

Slit the leeks lengthwise and rinse under running water to remove any sand.  Slice them into thin half moons.  Finely dice the onion.  Melt the butter in the soup pot, and when melted add the leeks and onion.  Stir to coat the vegetables with butter, then cover and sweat over low heat while you peel and dice the potatoes.  Add the diced potatoes to the pot, then the bouillon cube and the water.  Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

With an immersion blender, purée the contents of the pot until creamy and smooth.  Add the cream, salt, pepper, and grated nutmeg.  Serve hot with a little garnish of chervil leaves.  This will serve two as a generous main course or four as a starter.

It’s great with a sandwich of fruity Comté cheese, which blends marvelously with the flavors of the soup.  If you try it, let me know how the rest of your day turns out.  Our was warm and cozy and indoorsy, as a Sunday has every right to be.

It’s (Almost) Party Time

April 18, 2008

Don’t you love that moment just before the guests arrive, when the table’s set, the house is full of kitchen aromas, and everything still has the possibility of being perfect?  The moment when it looks likely that the meal will be just right for the season, the wines will marry adroitly with the food, the conversation will be wise and witty, and your friends will go home happy as the dishes magically wash themselves?  Me too, that’s my fantasy.

Then there are the party preparations that are happening all around us, requiring no shopping, dirtying no dishes, leaving us nothing to do but watch and wait.  The baby lemons, just starting out, that will brighten next winter with their clean tartness, will there be enough to preserve a few in salt to go with a festive tajine?  Who will I invite to share that meal?

The tiny green cherries, will they survive the spring storm predicted for tonight, and will they, once ripe, be the “best cherries in France” as the gardener promised?  And will there be enough to make little pots of jam for my sweet-toothed friends and acquaintances?  Will I have new friends to give jam to by the time the cherries turn crimson?

Will we let the new ivy have its way with the walls and windows, exuberantly covering everything in sight, so that when we’re showering before a party the window is completely covered over by green leaves and the arriving guests can’t see that we’re not quite dressed yet?

A lot of the fun is in the not knowing.

Mise En Place

April 13, 2008

Even if you don’t speak French, you know the term mise en place in its culinary context: having everything in its place before firing up the stove.  But it also means organising or setting things up in a more general sense, and can be applied to one’s affairs; in an exciting way it’s beginning to apply to our French life, which is starting to fall nicely into place without actually having been put there.

Asparagus, spring onions, fava beans, what else?  Yesterday we were invited to a wine pairing luncheon, and my assignment was to bring the entrée, which in France is the starter.  Our hostess asked me to make something with “lots of vegetables and a bit of charcuterie.”  I was flummoxed, right up until the morning of the party.  Customarily an effortless cook, I just couldn’t get this dish to come together in my mind.  Part of the problem was that the gathering was to be an intimate one, all French people, none of whom we knew well, at a home we’d never seen.  I didn’t know the rest of the menu, I didn’t know the kitchen, all I knew was that the hosts had a formidable stock of 3000 bottles of great wines deep underneath the house and that everyone at the table was a wine expert of one sort or another.  I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated, but I was definitely discomfited.  Which technically in French is déconcerté, but in current usage would best be translated with a word you’ll recognize immediately: complexé.

I puttered.  I muttered.  I imagined a dish based on stuffed morilles, or morels, but then it rained for three days and visions of soggy fungi danced in my dreams.  The fava beans from Spain were just finishing, those from Provence weren’t quite here yet.  Asparagus was everywhere, but it’s notoriously hard on wine.

With no clear idea of the final plan, I made a little velouté of asparagus, fennel, and leeks.  Hmm, that tasted better cold, and by the time it had been through a fine sieve three times there was only a tiny amount left.  Then I made some leeks braised in Pineau des Charentes, which were nice, but not thrilling.  Next I brined some pork belly and braised it in rosé on a bed of vegetables.  When it seemed really too bad to toss the vegetables I made them into a little vegetable paté.  When the pork ended up being a little bland I glazed it with a bit of quince jam and more Pineau des Charentes.   When that tasted decidedly sweet and perhaps a bit too American, I remembered that I had some baby chicory, bitter enough to balance the sweetness of the pork, especially when splashed with a bit of moutarde violette, a deep purple mustard made with grape must. 

The night before the party I realized that there was no way to get all of that gracefully on one plate, so I decided to bring an amuse bouche of the velouté, garnished with some asparagus tips and a little ball of walnut cheese, and small bites of the vegetable paté.  The entrée morphed into a plate with a few favas and a stalk of asparagus, nestled up to the warm pork perched on a bed of leeks, which was in turn blanketed with the chicory salad.

Quaking a bit, I called the hostess a few hours before the luncheon to say that I’d accidentally ended up making two courses, but she replied that they’d decided on a tasting menu format anyway so I was right in tune.  I mentioned that I could imagine a white Burgundy going well with my entrée, she said that she’d already brought one up from the cave for my course, just anticipating what I might make. 

As it turned out the luncheon was wonderful, my food fit in perfectly, and we felt absolutely at home, both in the kitchen and at the table.  The fact that we started out with a 26 year old Dom Perignon didn’t hurt a bit either.  And thus it was that in a heartbeat I went from nailbiting cluelessness to a sweet moment of grace, one in which the mise en place was impeccable. 


Scorpions And Lavender

April 9, 2008

The time has changed here, the mornings are dark, and normally it’s hard to wake up.  But opening my eyes to a scorpion perched on the ceiling over my pillow gets me out of bed in a jiffy.  I’m not as troubled by the nasty little beasties as I used to be, since we’ve discovered half a dozen or so in the house and have managed to dispatch them all without incident, but I’ve got to say that scorpions just don’t belong on the ceiling over the bed.  It’s creepy, imagining them up there while we’re sleeping, doing whatever scorpions do when they’re not stinging people.  I know they were here first, but they’ve got to go.

Ever since I wrote this about finding scorpions in the house here in the south of France, scorpions have been the star attraction of French Letters.  As of today, over 1000 people have read the scorpion post, and most of them are looking for hints about how to keep scorpions out of the house using lavender.  I’d never before heard of this treatment, never previously having been anywhere near a scorpion.  But readers have insisted that lavender repels scorpions, and scorpions repel me, so it’s time I tested out this theory.

Off I went to the market to see the lavender distillers.  With this still setup

they perfume the whole market with lavender, and produce all sorts of little bottles of lavender essences and aromas and oils and sprays.  I asked the vendors whether they’d ever heard of using lavender as a scorpion repellent.  “But of course” they answered, and suggested that I dab some of the abrial essence, the strongest type, on the walls of the bedroom.  So that’s what I’ll be doing before going to bed tonight, dabbing and hoping.  For good measure I’ll put the open bottle on the night stand by my pillow.

But here’s the thing.  How will I know if it’s working?  If I see another scorpion in the bedroom, ok, it’s clearly just urban legend.  But if I see no scorpions, what will that mean?  Maybe it’s the lavender, but maybe they’ve just moved outdoors into the spring weather.  Or maybe they’re still there, right over the bed, but only in the dark when I’m not seeing them.

So I’ll try to report on how well it works, just as soon as I can figure out how to be at least quasi-scientific about it.  And please, if you have any personal experience with chasing away scorpions, either with or without lavender, do tell!

Later: you can read about how well it (didn’t) work right here, and for a truly scary scorpion picture look here.

Les Apparences Sont Parfois Trompeuses

April 7, 2008

That’s how you say “appearances can be deceiving” in French.  And in addition to the language lesson I’m here to testify that even food cooked with love, in France, by me, can be surprising and disappointing.  Not everything is as it seems, not even in my own kitchen where I usually feel like I’m the mistress of my universe. 

This vin d’orange looked beautiful after its two weeks of infusing bitter oranges into rosé and eau de vie.  But our neighbor, retired from the restaurant business and thus an honest and reliable source of opinions about French foods, tasted it and pronounced it the only thing he’d tasted from my kitchen that wasn’t right.  He thinks time will cure it, and I certainly hope he’s not just being polite.  I’ve got about 5 liters of the stuff, and I really want it to be wonderful.

These goat cheeses had several weeks to soak in a bath of olive oil, garlic, thyme and juniper berries.  They look splendid, but in reality they absorbed almost none of the flavors they’d been in bed with.  What we did get was some really delicious goat cheese-flavored olive oil, not something you can use every day and not exactly what we were looking for.

And speaking of looks, doesn’t this look pretty much like a dog’s breakfast?  But in fact, this sauté of baby Brussels sprouts and chestnuts, smothered in Maroilles cheese and melted into unctuosity, was utterly addictive.

Then there was this giant asparagus.  Roasted with olive oil it tasted as delicious as it looks.  But later…and now we’re going to talk about a problem that doesn’t get a lot of air time: asparagus pee.  This asparagus was the absolute champion, the epitome, the undisputed king of evil pee producers.  It made for pee that no open window could assuage, that lasted for hours, and I mean like 24 hours, that made it impossible to even contemplate using a public bathroom.  And yes, there are too public bathrooms in France.  But not for people who eat this asparagus, if they have any sort of social conscience at all, which you’ll be happy to know we do.

So take heart, near occasions of failure are everywhere.  The good thing about failure is that it gives you a second chance, a new lease on life, the occasion to redeem yourself and make it all right the next time.  However, as much as I love second chances, the next time I see asparagus as long as my forearm, green-tipped, white of stalk, violet-tinged, I’m walking away from the table.  And if you trust me, you will too.

Beauty And The Beast

April 5, 2008

Voilà la beauté de l’arbre de Judée.  It’s a breathtakingly gorgeous redbud tree, of the cercis siliquastrum variety.  I’ve never seen one before, but suddenly they’re in bloom everywhere.  The one in our garden is absolutely covered with huge, peaceful black bees.

Beppo, who’s been very ill recently, lies in the dappled redbud shade and tries to forget his troubles.

We too try to forget Beppo’s troubles, but it’s hard.  Even a warm summer day scented pink and buzzing softly is not enough to stop our worrying.  Send Beppo healthy thoughts through the blogosphere, s’il vous plait.

A Bunny After Easter

April 3, 2008


I have what is arguably a perverse desire to serve rabbit on Easter.  This year I missed by a week, but made up for it with a delicious rabbit in a spice cake sauce.  Since slow-cooked bunny in spice cake sauce is brown to the max, instead of the finished dish you are seeing the bunny’s pedigree, metal tags showing which farm raised the rabbit for market. 

While knowing where your food comes from is a movement in the U.S., it’s a deep cultural current in France.  There are certainly enormous supermarkets here, and they’re packed with shoppers.  But I also know people who almost never set foot in one, preferring instead to buy everything possible directly from the producer, or from a vendor who sells farm produce at one of the weekly markets. 

I’m on the fence, myself.  I love buying a bunny that’s traceable to a specific farm.  However, the one guy I know that raises bunnies has such heartstoppingly gorgeous animals that it’s practically impossible to imagine eating them.  And I do still have a fascination with French prepared foods, which are of a variety and quality that I find mind-boggling.

So, I’ll leave you to gather your rabbit where you may, but I will mention that a certain amount of frozen rabbit on the world market is coming from China, and I’d avoid that if I were able to identify it.  Once you have a rabbit, you can make this delicious recipe. 

You’ll also need pain d’épices, which is a sort of French gingerbread.  There are many variations, but it’s closer to a German lebkuchen than to a regular American gingerbread.  You want to find or make a cake that’s based on honey, not one heavy with molasses, and with a nice spice balance.  There’s a basic recipe here – it’s in French so let me know if you need a translation.

This is a dish that’s best if made over a three day period.  The more often you reheat and chill the finished dish, the better it will be.

Rabbit with Pain d’Epices Sauce

1 large rabbit, cut into pieces (giblets included but save the liver for another use)
6 large shallots, peeled and chopped
2 oz. butter 
1 heaping tablespoon flour
2 bottles Belgian blonde beer
1 clove garlic
4 slices pain d’épices
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon thyme
large pinch grated nutmeg
salt and pepper

Salt and pepper the rabbit pieces.  Melt the butter in a large sauté pan and brown the rabbit well.  Place rabbit pieces in a large ovenproof dish, preferably a clay pot.  Sauté the shallots and garlic in the rabbit drippings.  When softened, sprinkle with the flour and stir for a minute or two.  Gradually add the beer, stirring to achieve a smooth sauce.  Crumble the pain d’épices into the sauce and stir to combine.  Add the mustard, vinegar, thyme, and nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.  Adjust with additional vinegar or a little brown sugar if necessary – the sweetness will vary depending on your pain d’épices.  You want a sauce that’s sweet but not cloying.

Preheat the oven to 375.  Pour the sauce over the rabbit, cover the clay pot tightly, and bake for 1 1/2 hours.  Allow the pot to cool, then place in fridge.  You can serve this the next day by reheating for an hour in a slow oven, but to make it even better: on day 2 reheat the rabbit until the sauce is bubbling, then allow it to cool and return it to the fridge overnight.  On day 3 reheat it once again and serve.