Archive for May 2008

Not For The Pigeon-Hearted

May 29, 2008

Do you ever buy food just for its beauty?  You’d think that after all the cherries we’ve had recently I’d never eat another cherry this summer.  You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.  These cerises coeurs de pigeon, or pigeon-heart cherries, stopped me in my tracks at the market yesterday.  Enormous, heart-shaped, glistening, irresistable.  They followed me home, I swear.  So, of course, I had to eat them.  They’re completely different from the Burlat cherries on our tree, with a firm skin that pops crisply to the bite and a juicy golden interior.   Of course I had to look up the meaning of pigeon-hearted, hoping it meant something like “will eat cherries non-stop” but no, it seems to mean timid.  Well, clearly you can’t be timid in the face of these cherries, you have to throw yourself into the fray with gusto, and so I did.

Then there were these fresh green almonds, which I bought because they were fuzzy and inviting and I had no idea what to do with them.  The seller told me to just crack them between two stones and eat them.  I tried one: hmm, a certain bitterness, nothing like what I think of as an almond flavor.  A quick waltz through Google tells me that they’re highly prized for their super-short season, best eaten raw in a salad, with fruit, or with cheese, but can also be made into a soup with fresh garlic, which is also in season right now.  I’m looking forward to playing happily with them for the next few days.

And then, on the Playing With Food front, these are the cheeses that I bought, almost strictly for their extravagant beauty and differentness, to take to a tasting of sweet wines, vins liquoreux.  In front there’s an aged blue sheep cheese from the Aveyron, then an aged Mascarpone of cow’s milk, something I’d never before imagined but now can’t live without, and in back a goat cheese with a rind washed in Costières de Nîmes.  Before the tasting I played with fig bread, nut bread, quince jam, fig confit, and miel d’arbousier, which has a particularly ravishing bitterness, in order to get the right combinations for each cheese.

Fortunately, at my age no one admonishes me not to play with my food.  No one tells me that I shouldn’t bring home stray and mysterious food items to investigate.  The market provides me with endless opportunities to get the kitchen messy.  And there always seems to be someone who’s happy and not too pigeon-hearted to eat the food I’ve been playing with.  Thank you, world.


À La Fortune Du Pot

May 27, 2008

That’s pot luck to Anglophones, the luck of the pot.  When our English students started planning a pot luck to celebrate the end of the term, right away I realized that left to their own devices no one would be bringing anything with vegetables.  Mad vegetable lover that I am, I scrounged in the bottom drawer of the fridge.

Beautiful Swiss chard.  A giant bunch of green onions.  Bingo, tarte aux blettes, or Swiss chard pie.  Don’t shudder, it’s fabulous.  And because I had chestnut flour that I’ve been wanting to use up before it gets stale, Swiss Chard Pie in Chestnut Crust was born.  Oh, and as it happened, à la fortune du frigo, by the luck of the fridge there were 4 languishing egg yolks that needed using up as well.  Yes, it’s true, this recipe is unabashedly rich.  It’s delicious as is, but you can lighten it up if you’re so inclined by substituting two whole eggs for the four yolks. 

Swiss Chard Pie in a Chestnut Crust

For the crust:
1 cup all purpose flour*
1/2 cup chestnut flour
6 oz salted butter**
1 Tbs. chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme
4 Tbs. ice water

*If you’re making this in France, use 1/2 cup type 65 flour, 1/2 cup type 45, and 1/2 cup chestnut flour.
** In France, use demi-sel with crystals of sea salt

For the filling:
1 large bunch of chard, stems diced fine, leaves in chiffonade
1 large bunch of green onions, sliced, green and white parts separated
2 Tbs fruity olive oil
1/2 tsp quatre épices, or nutmeg if necessary
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 cup heavy cream
2 whole eggs
4 egg yolks

Place the flours, chopped herbs, and the butter, cut in chunks, in the food processor.  Pulse 6-7 times until the butter remains in pea-sized chunks.  Turn the mixture out into a bowl and with a fork stir in the ice water.  On a lightly floured board or marble slab, turn the dough a few times just until it holds together.  Form the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill for an hour.

Preheat oven to 425°.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet.  Add the diced chard stems and the white parts of the green onions and sweat them, covered, over a low flame, for 5 minutes.  Add the chard leaf chiffonade and the sliced onion greens to the pot.  Salt, pepper, and sprinkle with the quatre épices.  Cover the skillet and sweat the vegetables together for another 5 minutes.  The chard should be tender to the bite and highly seasoned.  Remove from the fire and let cool.

Roll out the dough and fit it into a removable bottom tart pan.

Whisk together the crème fraîche, cream, eggs, and egg yolks.  Stir in the cooled vegetables.  Pour mixture into the tart shell and set the tart in the hot oven for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes reduce the temperature to 350° and continue baking the tart for another 25-30 minutes, until the surface is golden, slightly puffed, and lightly firm. 

Serve at room temperature at a pot luck.

Mother’s Little Helpers

May 25, 2008

Today is Mother’s Day in France, La Fête des Mères, and the paper is full of ads for things to buy for Mom and places to take her out for dinner.  Although in the US we tend to think of the day as a triumph of modern marketing, Wikipedia tells us that Moms have been a big deal since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and that a day to celebrate maternity existed in England even in the 15th century.  I say go, Moms!

The morning bakery cases were overflowing with special Mom-pleasing pastries, and since we’re far from our sons Shel brought me a tutti-frutti tartlet and a second cup of coffee to mark the day.  And since it’s still raining, raining, raining, I’ll spend the afternoon cooking that chunk of wild boar that’s been reposing in the freezer, somthing I’ve been saving for a special occasion.

Although our recent visit to the Halles de Nîmes, a truly wonderful food market, shows how a French Mom who can pay the price can manage not to have to cook at all.

There were confited duck legs,

olive and mushroom-stuffed duck legs,

cheeses as far as the eye could see,

the delicious little sea snails called bulots,

duck and cherry paté in pastry,

and sweet crunchy treats to have with that morning coffee. 

Food therapy for the busy Mom, all there, spread out and inviting, every morning of the week, even on Mother’s Day.  I can’t help but think that, likely as not, it’s some other Mom who prepared those delicacies, and who’s there working, even on La Fête des Mères, to sell them with a smile to those who need a break, who deserve a little pampering.

So this morning when he went to the bakery Shel took our boulangère a jar of our homemade cherry jam, in honor of the fact that she’s working on Mother’s Day even though she herself has four very young kids, one a newborn.  If she has any croissants left after the morning rush I hope she’ll sit down with a cup of coffee and a jam-covered bite or two and take a few quiet deep breaths. 

A rose for her and for all the Moms that make the world go round.

En Faire Tout Un Fromage

May 21, 2008

That’s a fun way to say making a big deal out of nothing much, a mountain out of a molehill, making a whole cheese out of something small, like milk.  But honestly, if this Tétoun, which means a little breast, were on your table, wouldn’t you want to make a big deal out of it?  I know I did.  I made a big deal out of it by eating it all by myself, which is not as astounding as one might think, since it’s a 4 oz cheese.  A really good little raw milk goat cheese, nesting on a bed of dried green herb that I think was summer savory, and with any luck I’ll find another one sometime soon.

At the same time I bought the Tétoun I also brought home this chestnut leaf-wrapped Banon

which, given the extravagant wrapping and general fancification of the presentation, is kind of tout un fromage all by itself.  An apellation controlé raw milk goat cheese, made extra interesting by the chestnut leaves that are gathered in the fall and stored until spring when the goats feel up to giving milk again.  I wished it were just a little riper

but it was lovely just as it was.  Since I was the only one in the house who thought so, you guessed it, another personal cheese festival ensued.

Sometimes we need to make a big deal out of the small stuff.

Cooking In The Homesick Kitchen

May 18, 2008

People are always asking me what I miss from home.  Normally I say something like “Gosh, almost nothing, because, well, we’re in France.  What’s to miss?”  Don’t take this personally, it doesn’t mean that I don’t miss you, because of course I do.  They’re not asking who I miss, it’s more about “stuff.”  And usually stuff is the last thing on my mind.

But then today I was doing a little housecleaning of my hard drive, which seems to be where I keep most of my stuff these days.  And as I cleaned up old photos, an amazing number of which are of food I’ve cooked, I realized that there are some things I miss.

I miss baking.  I don’t do much here because the oven is small and baking pans and cookie sheets are hard to come by and there’s a bakery next door.

I miss baking my own bread.  This I don’t do because, well, we’re in France and you have to be nuts to bake your own bread here.

I miss making my own charcuterie at home.  This is another “duh, we’re in France” item.  I have made a few patés and terrines since we’ve been here, but it’s pretty silly, and I only do it to be a contrarian.


I miss cooking in cast iron skillets.  99% of all pots here are non-stick, and it’s just not the same.

I miss cooking in the smoker.  If you have a smoker you know there’s no substitute.  And if you don’t have a smoker, get one and smoke something for me.

I miss Mexican food.  It’s the one thing we haven’t been able to find here.  Probably you’ll find this hard to believe, but there is in fact Old El Paso stuff in the stores, which I think claims to have some Mexican heritage.  Like I said, I miss Mexican food.

I miss Rancho Gordo beans, for my money easily the most beautiful and delicious beans I’ve ever found anywhere.

And I miss cooking with spices.  French food is about herbs, and minimal use of them, just the barest hint so as not to disguise the flavor of the food itself.  I’ve made a lot of delicious food here, but as Shel said the other day, my cooking isn’t as wham! pow! as it used to be.

So yeah, I guess I do miss some things after all.  Because, well, we’re in France where life is different, and as so many people have said before me, vive la différence.  But if you want to send me a smoker, feel free!


Life Is Just A Sea Of Cherries

May 17, 2008

There, my friends, you have 5 linear feet of cherries.  A whole kitchen full of cherries.  And that’s just what we saved from the birds this morning.  After a torrential nighttime rain the morning brought an amazing swoop of little birds to the tree.  I think they’re called mesanges here, a tiny tit of a bird, totally unafraid of rain and human scarecrows clapping their hands.  We finally persuaded Beppo to get on the job and up the tree, but in the end, even he wasn’t enough of a deterrent for the hungry birds. 

In truth there are enough to share, and we can’t get to the highest fruit in any case, but still, it’s the first time I’ve lived with a cherry tree and I want to take full advantage of it.

I’ve started a rumtopf of cherries,

and made my second batch of vin de feuilles de cerisier, a wine made with cherry leaves soaked in red wine and sugar that is actually quite delicious.

Today we even went so far as to buy a cherry pitter.

Between the two of us, plus the partially-reliable pitter, we got 3 kilos of pitted cherries into the pot to make jam.  That won’t be done until tomorrow, and in the meantime half of the kitchen counter is still heaped with cherries.  What to do next?  More jam?  Cherry syrup?  I’ve been eating as many as possible and giving away fruit, but this is getting serious.  Because even though it’s dark and raining again and the birds have gone to bed, I know there are still a lot more cherries on that tree.  And with all this rain they’ll have to picked or else they’ll spoil.

It’s sink or swim time in cherrydom and I need a lifesaving recipe or two to keep my head above the fruity swells.  Help, what would you do?

Fava Bean Fantasia

May 14, 2008

These fabulously fuzzy favas are fun to play with, perhaps even more fun to cook than they are to eat.  I like to slit their long pods neatly, pop out the beans, then stroke the fuzzy pod linings.  Just two minutes in boiling water for the inner bean and the fun begins again, as one by one I slit the tough skins protecting the beans to reveal their tender emerald essence.  I get all green under the fingernails in the process, and it’s a satisfyingly silly amount of work, yielding only about one cup of edible bean per kilo of pods and debris.  Fava season makes me wish we had a compost heap.

I had thought that many people shared my fava fondling fetish, but a French friend confided that she buys them frozen and already peeled, while an English friend said she just boils and eats them with the tough inner skin still on.  Wowsers.

These particular favas lent themselves to a simple salad, stirred together with a bit of crème fraîche, spring onions, and basil and mint from my new herb garden.

Tumbled over a frittata they were mellow and springlike, leftover on crackers they made for a virtuous aperitif.  If you’ve had Fear of Favas, get some to play with.  And don’t forget to pet the pods.

A Taste Of Honey

May 13, 2008

 I love honey like my honey loves me.  Maybe even more.  And since I’ve discovered the honey from the Miellerie de Clairan in the tiny hamlet of Cannes et Clairan, I’ve been in honey heaven.  This is what’s on my counter at the moment, and I’m shocked to see that I’ve let myself run out of lavender honey, which when made by these guys is one of my all-time favorites.  How can that have happened?

One look at this door tells you that at the Miellerie de Clairan they mean business, honey business, and nothing but.  No flashy publicity, no website, a barely-paved track to their shop, and the best honeys I’ve ever tasted in my life.  At least a dozen types, many truly exceptional, some award-winning.

Walk through it at your peril, you’re sure to emerge with sticky lips and a nose full of sweet reminders of summer, not to mention a sackful of take-home treasures.

There are candles that smell edible,


nougats that, when given as hostess gifts will earn you an extra bisou, if you manage not to eat the gift yourself before the hostess gets her chance,

all their beautiful honeys, and even

jams and fresh eggs.  It’s a tiny shop, but it’s hard to leave.

If you’re a honey nut like I am, and if you have a collection of honey just waiting to be put to a good use, here’s a wonderful honey dessert, Flan Souffle al Miel, that really shows off the flavor of the most interesting honey you can find.  And if you have a favorite honey recipe to share, please post it in the Comments section.  More is always better when it comes to honey, and that’s the buzz.

Un Pique-Nique Chez Nous

May 11, 2008

Want to come to a picnic at our house?  We’ve got the bread and wine,

some Corsican figatelli, a smoked pork liver sausage that is rich and savory,

and the cheese, in this case a bleu de Causses and a Bethmale.  You bring the sunscreen and some juicy gossip.

And then after lunch, if you play your cards right, you can claim the comfy chair under the cherry tree where the fruit will practically fall right into your mouth.  Just another picnic in paradise.

Scary Creatures of Southern France

May 9, 2008

What do you think?  Would you say this is the asp viper shown here, or just a garden snake?  That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves for the past half hour, ever since Beppo decided to prove that he’s feeling better by bringing this little treasure into the house right after supper. 

Fortunately, he didn’t bring it onto the bed, as he did the other night with the large rat he’d vanquished.  Sorry, there’s no picture of the rat, since that was at 3:30 in the morning, and even in the interest of keeping you informed, no way was I running for my camera to record a rat on the bed in the dead of night.  Let’s just leave it at this: it was a very large rat, and Shel pitched out the window it in the general direction of the neighboring installation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for which he’ll probably burn in hell, if there is a hell and the Témoins de Jéhovah get to say who goes there, which I sincerely hope is not the case..

But, on another recent night when there was a scorpion that, once knocked down from the ceiling, agreed to hold still for a photo, you can bet I thought of you.  For those of you that have been craving an up close and way too personal view of a French scorpion, here you go:

There now, don’t you feel better?  You have met a French scorpion,  and he’s not debonair, doesn’t have a charming French accent, isn’t in any way more seductive than any other scorpion, he’s just plain scary and hideous.  Yeah, he’s part of the ecosystem and all that, but the exterminator is coming on Wednesday, and I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m oh so glad.  This nightly scan of the ceiling over the bed is getting really old.

But now, how can we teach Beppo who is and who isn’t invited into the house?  In the best French tradition one treats guests very well, and that doesn’t normally include flushing them down the toilet!