Archive for July 2008

Hot Town, Summer In The City

July 31, 2008

After a coolish July, for quite a few days now the paper’s weather section has been predicting “une belle journée estivale,”  a beautiful summery day.  But lately it’s also been forecasting “la pollution à l’ozone,” which has lead to actual smog alerts and some fairly drastic traffic measures.  Smog alerts in Paradise?  In August?  Quel horreur!

As the whole world knows, August is the time when Parisians and other Northerners famously flock down south, leading to traffic congestion, not to mention tailpipe emissions, of epic proportions.  The weather is hot, the roads are jammed, the kids are cranky, and the Gendarmes are out in force to make sure that people leaving the roadside rest areas haven’t had too much wine with their lunch.  On top of all that, now we have the requirement that cars on the autoroute reduce their speed from the normal 130 kph to 100 kph, with corresponding speed reductions on all of the smaller roads.  Industry is required to reduce emissions, kids and older people are advised limit outdoor activities, and people who are spending their vacations redecorating their houses are asked to restrict their use of paints and solvents.

The paper, however, is doing its part to lighten things up, with its daily summer column of quizzes and tales for easy reading, sort of a French version of a beach book.  Apparently, the French have a good time answering questions like:

1) Which king authorized Rabelais to print his works in 1545?
2) Which poet said “intelligence is the ability to recognize one’s own stupidity?”
3) How many hectares are devoted to oyster production at Leucate?”
4) How many days did it take in the 19th century to go from Agde to Toulouse via the Canal du Midi?”

Come on, you try.  Probably every French school kid can answer those questions, and I happen to have the answers right in front of me, but I’m not telling until you guess!

There are also delightful little stories.  Like the one today,  just to stay in line with the theme of emissions,  about the expression “to be as curious as a chamber pot.”  What, your chamber pot isn’t curious?  It must not be French.  Here’s my translation of the morning giggle:

The expression “être curieuse comme un pot de chambre” comes from the Occitan “curios coma un pissador.”  Chamber pots, back when they were in more common use than they are today, had AN EYE painted at the bottom in order to respond to what was presented to them.  (Are you getting the picture here?  The chamber pot was keeping an eye on, well, I’m sure you can imagine what the pot saw.)  In the same vein we also find the expression “curieux comme un pet” or curious as a fart.  (Hey, really, I’m just translating here.)  This expression probably comes from the fact that the fart is closed up in the intestines, thus hermetically sealed off from what is happening outside, and wants to come out to see what’s going on.  Hence its curiosity which refuses to be denied.  (That casts those emissions in a whole new light, doesn’t it?)

Ok, so let’s say you have your family crammed into an adorably miniscule Smart Car, and you’re stuck in a traffic snarl-up the likes of which one normally associates with Los Angeles.  It’s averaging 32-34° C., which is about 91-95° F., and you know that when you finally arrive at the beach you won’t be able to send the kids outside to run around and wear themselves out because of the ozone alert.  At least you’ll be off the road, you can pour yourself a Pastis, and settle in to tell the kids, who, having been denied access to the outside world all day are by now as curious as farts, the story of the watchful chamber pot.  And if that doesn’t keep them busy for hours telling fart jokes, you can get them thinking about Rabelais and his king and the oysters you’ll be having for dinner. 

Which king was that now?  How many oysters?

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Mettre La Main À La Pâte

July 27, 2008

Mettre la main à la pâte is literally to put your hand in the dough, but in use it means to get involved, to get down to work in a hands-on way.  And that’s just what I’ve got to do: roll up my sleeves and dive right in to tackle the slightly horrifying invasion of my kitchen.  Work’s come a knockin’, and my idyllically lazy summer sloth is about to be interrupted by a day’s hard labor.  Blame it on the fruit.

First of all, we discovered that we have a plum tree that we didn’t even know we had.  It’s so tall, at least 20 feet, that we’d always thought of it as a shade tree.  But when small plums started dropping everywhere, we hauled out the ladder and retrieved as many as we could, which was, in fact, rather a lot.

Second of all, I can’t resist buying or gathering fruit, wherever I see it, no matter that the counter is already heaped high.

In the kitchen right now are blackberries, apricots, nectarines, cherries, figs, the aforementioned plums, and some watermelon that I’m pretending doesn’t count.  The watermelon is getting ignored because it isn’t the sort that one uses to make jam, while all of the other fruits definitely are.  And that’s what I should be doing, making jams and tarts, and doing my part to keep summer’s bounty available for months, instead of encouraging the already impressive French fruit fly population.

So here I am, on a hot Sunday morning, preparing to worship at the altar of fructose.  Hallelujah, sweet fruit, ready or not, here I come.  Fortunately we’re having guests tomorrow, guests with children.  Children who, now that I think of it,  might be just the right age to appreciate an all-jam dinner.

Leaving No Stone Unturned

July 23, 2008

The south of France is a rocky place, one where pretty much anything that can be made of stone, is.

From the most natural

to the most highly worked, stone is a ubiquitous presence in our lives.  If I’ve even ever been in a wooden building here, it escaped my attention.  The French have the idea of “construction en dur” or construction using hard materials.  These days that also includes a lot of concrete construction, but much of what we see every day was built to last for hundreds of years, and so it has.

From the simply utilitarian

through the category of beautiful as well as useful

stone has everywhere been worked to be more gorgeous than it strictly has to be to serve its function.  Masons and stonecutters are a well-represented category of artisans

and whether it’s restoring old structures

or carving out niches in caves to install a gallery, a stonecutter’s work is never done.  We were in a stonecutter’s house recently, a place where even the towel hook in the shower was carved in stone.  “It only took me a couple of hours to carve it,” he said.  He left unsaid what I was thinking:

an hour here, an hour there, and pretty soon you’re talking real work.

When The Tour de France Comes To Town

July 21, 2008

The mighty Tour de France sweeps across the country once a year, and the excitement is palpable.  Not to mention the traffic jams, which are monumental, and the TV coverage, which is virtually uninterrupted.

Certain of us have been dreaming about the Tour de France for lo these many months.  To have it pass close to home is a cyclist’s dream.

For that reason TV watching has been at an all-time high around here, although I have to admit that some of us get more out of it than others.

When not glued to the tube, Shel was plotting a way to get to the Tour without getting stuck in traffic for hours.  This in fact did require some rather extensive advance planning

since his idea was to avoid parking woes by riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, which necessitated the purchase of some protective gear in a hard-to-find size on account of his, er, large brain.

Now, for those of you that have been complaining that this blog contains too many pictures of Shel and none of me, let me just say this about that:

Voila!  But me, I was plotting something completely different, since you’d never actually catch me on the back of a motorcycle no matter how cute I look in a helmet.

What I was cooking up was a dîner Maillot Jaune, a yellow jersey dinner, by which I mean that I invited some friends to come to dinner on Friday for a meal of the national cuisine of whoever was wearing the yellow jersey on Friday morning.  And guess what?  It was Cadel Evans, an Australian.

A quick look at Google revealed that a sizeable portion of Australian cuisine involves cooking either kangaroo, wallaby, emu, ostrich, crocodile, or wichity grubs, none of which are widely available in France.  For which, in the case of wichity grubs, I am deeply thankful.  Fortunately, they also eat a lot of lamb.  So, meat being the order of the day, we started with

Australian meat pie, which was surprisingly delicious, with an Aussie rosé.

For the main course there were Lamb Burgers with Goat Cheese and Beetroot Salsa,

a salad made with just watermelon, sweet onion, and shredded mint that was one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever tasted,

and a nice potato salad with mint and bacon.  There was an Aussie Shiraz-Cab to go with this that was, let’s just say, much appreciated by the guys.  If you’ve ever described a wine as macho, you probably know what I mean.  I must have been wussified by French reds, because this one was way too hot and heavy for me.

And for dessert, Sticky Date Pudding that was apparently ecstasy-inducing, judging by the sounds emanating from our guests.

If you want to try this at home, the lamb burger recipe is here, the meat pie is based on this one, although I added some Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, and Viandox to the meat filling, and the date pudding is here.  I did add a spoonful of molasses to the pudding, because the French brown sugar is quite pale.

Let me also say that someone’s large brain forgot to take the camera along to the Tour’s departure from Nîmes, which is why you’re looking at pictures of meat pie instead of biker beefcake, but hey, we have to think about food sometimes.  There’s more to life than incredibly strong and buff guys on bikes, although you’d never know it these days.

All Tomato, All The Time

July 17, 2008

“Oh no, not tomatoes for lunch AND dinner again today!” 

You’ll never hear that around here, where warm waves of tomato satisfaction wash over us each time we pass the three pots wherein are ensconced our precious tomato plants.  Sure, it’s the south of France and tomatoes are heaped on every available shop surface, but these are our personal tomatoes, fussed over, watered faithfully every morning, and fed the grounds from our morning espresso.  It’s hard to resist the temptation to just sit by the pot and eat them straight from the vine, but this recipe is so good that it’s well worth a moment’s self-denial for the eventual reward of serving up these treats.

It’s admittedly hard to choose, but I have to say that this is my all-time favorite thing to do with Roma tomatoes:

You know you want some.  Luckily for you it’s practically the easiest thing in the world to make.

Roasted Roma Tomatoes with Garlic and Basil

a heap of Roma tomatoes
a big bunch of fresh basil
lots of fresh garlic
some good fruity olive oil
salt and pepper

Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise, leaving the skins on.  Spread a thin film of olive oil over the bottom of an oven-proof pan large enough to hold your tomatoes in one layer.  Remove the basil leaves from the stems but leave the leaves whole.  Peel and thinly slice the garlic.

Preheat your oven to 350° F./180° C.   Lay the basil leaves all over the bottom of the pan.  Use lots.  Scatter the garlic slices over the basil.  Use lots.  Set the tomatoes, cut side down, on top of the garlic and basil.  You can fill the pan completely, putting the tomatoes shoulder to shoulder, but leave them in one layer.  Drizzle the tomatoes with additional olive oil, making sure that each tomato gets some oil.  Put the tomatoes in the oven and roast them, uncovered, for 40-45 minutes.  Keep your eye on them, they’re done when they looked collapsed and the skin is puckery and lightly browned.

Remove tomatoes from the oven and let cool.  When they’re cool enough to handle, lightly pinch off the skins, which will be amazingly easy to do.  Salt and pepper the tomatoes to taste.  Store in the fridge.

With these little treasures you can make a sandwich, or stir a big scoop of them into pasta or over polenta.  You can add them to a saute of zucchini or eggplant, or use them to fill an omelette.  In fact, I think you’ll find that this is one of the most versatile things you can have in your summer kitchen.  If you dream up some great new use for them, please post it here for all to share!

And because a reader was wise enough to suggest that this site needs an index of recipes, watch for one to appear soon.  I’ll start working on it right after I eat that picture-perfect tomato sandwich.

Knock, Knock, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

July 14, 2008

“Mama, take this badge off of me

I can’t use it anymore

It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see

I feel like I’m knockin’ on Heaven’s door.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door,

Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door,

 

Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door,

Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.”

And then you sing it again.  And again, and sometimes, Bobbie forgive us, with a reggae beat.  As I said after that particular rendition “si Bob Dylan était déjà mort, il tournerait dans son caveau” which I hope means approximately that it’s a good thing Bob Dylan is still with us or else he’d be turning in his grave to hear the French reggae version of his ballad.

You’ve been to summer camp where everyone sang Kumbaya over and over, for the sheer joy of singing together.  You’ve probably even been to parties where a guitar or two appeared and Kumbaya was the only song everyone knew.  Yesterday it wasn’t Kumbaya but…you guessed it.

We started our day by driving cross country, past the spectacular Pic St. Loup, to a music party at a house where incense burned, there were broccoli and grain salads on the buffet, kids splashed in the pool, and even if you weren’t one of the real musicians you picked up a tambourine.  It was like a flashback to my youth, if my youth had been lived in French, where instead of hippie they say Baba cool.  The sensation of déjà vu was intensified by the fact that although the musicians were almost all French, two thirds of the music was American.  I never imagined that I’d be singing in a pickup backup group for When The Saints Go Marchin’ In, Blue Suede Shoes, or Dust In The Wind, clustered around a microphone with a group of French singers, some of whom understood the words and some of whom were singing by rote.  Or that I’d spend a whole day knocking on heaven’s door.  Or that I’d enjoy it so much.

One of the day’s biggest pleasures was receiving compliments about Shel’s playing.  Being very rhythm-challenged myself, apparently I’ve failed to fully appreciate the fact that I’m married to a rhythm genius.  Person after person came to me to tell me how brilliantly Shel plays, and it was a joy to see him being so thoroughly appreciated.

It wasn’t all music.  We had lots of teenagers and kids doing what they do best all over the world: chilling out.  The difference here is that I got three kisses apiece from a whole procession of kids I’d never seen before, something they take for granted and I find startlingly delightful.  Believe me when I tell you, if an unknown 13 year old boy walks up to you and offers a still-downy cheek, kiss it quick.

 

By the end of the day we had music,  peace, and love enough to spare, and we all felt very close to heaven’s door.  Just close enough and no closer, and that’s one good thing, mon.

Vive L’Indépendance!

July 9, 2008

The Americans thanked the French for their role in establishing the US as an independent nation.  The French ribbed the Brits about being at a party honoring the loss of their colonies.  The Dutch and the Swiss were the neutral peacekeepers, and everyone agreed that traditional American barbecue food is delicious.  That was our 4th of July party in a nutshell, international and jolly. 

It’s actually one of the things that tickles me the most here, to cook for French friends.  Their expectations of an American cook are so low that it’s practically tragic.  When I serve them French food they’re generally blown away that an American can interpret their cuisine.  But this party was something different.

Take the lovely pie above, nominally a key lime pie.  Except that there are neither key limes nor key lime juice here, nor graham crackers, so it was a bit of a tweak.  It was really delicious, though, and not like anything people here recognized, with its cookie crust and condensed milk-based filling.  It was familiar, not too different from a tarte au citron, but clearly something else.  There wasn’t a crumb left.

I also made the most classic chocolate cake imagineable, a recipe from Hershey’s, only there wasn’t any Hershey’s chocolate to be found.  So although this looked just like, and had the texture of, an American cake, the flavor of the chocolate was more European than American.  And the powdered sugar doesn’t behave exactly the same way here, so the frosting had to spend a little quality time in the food processor before coming together into a shiny spreadability.  Nonetheless, it was a homey creation, utterly unlike a French cake.

Fruit salad is pretty much the same everywhere, although this one was made with the incredibly perfumed Mara des bois strawberries and so was in fact more French than American in the end.

Coleslaw, on the other hand, turned out to be a major international sensation and was the favorite dish of the day.  Sweet and sour, crisp and wilting, it’s a bite of Americana that apparently hadn’t made it here before now.

The French do make potato salad, but this one was pronounced to be totally different, depending as it did on some sweet pickle relish that friends had kindly brought me from home.

But I think it was the prospect of ribs that had really inspired people to come to the party.  Ribs have a sort of mythic reputation here, but are sadly not to be found, or not in a form that an American would claim.  The meat is beautiful, but the bottled sauces lack oomph and I don’t think rubs have made it here yet.  Of course I do have to admit that we needed the help of a French former Boy Scout to get the fire going, an eternal shame for our reputation.    And that we only have a grill the size of a large platter and so the ribs couldn’t spend a lot of time there, even once the fire had reached a respectably smoky state.  But thanks to this Mark Bittman recipe the ribs were already cooked before they hit the grill and only needed to pick up an alluring layer of smoke before being whisked onto the plate.

Here they repose with the delectable baked beans I made with my favorites from Rancho Gordo, again imported by recent visitors.  The French appreciate beans in general, and these pintos were no exception.  There’s also oven-fried chicken here, embarrassingly made with corn flakes.   I swear, I’ve never made chicken with corn flakes in my life, and I had an identity crisis just going through the checkstand.  But you know what?  It was really excellent, and I don’t know why I had such a complex about buying them.  When I asked the store owner, who was checking me out, whether lots of French people eat corn flakes, she was flabbergasted to hear that we ourselves don’t eat them.  “They’re good,” she told me, “you ought to try them with a little milk.”

All of the guests departed with leftovers for another meal, since I’d submitted to the normal American inclination to make twice as much as necessary, just in case.  That’s something that takes getting used to for a French person, here where doggie bags are unknown.  Some people left asking for classes in American cooking, which I found rather heartwarming.  And all of them left wine behind.  It’s one of the big mysteries of the day that there were 6 empty wine bottles, and 10 full ones at the end of the party.  That means that 20 people only drank 6 bottles of wine, which by American standards is shockingly little.  And it also shows that the French too are guilty of providing twice as much as necessary, just in case.

I loved it that we were of five nationalities, and that many of our guests met each other for the first time.  I loved it that even though we had two separate tables, everyone scrunched in around one, 20 people at a table for 8.  I loved seeing someone eating ribs with a knife and fork, hearing that this was another person’s first experience of American food, and the way that people purred over their plates.  But probably my favorite moment of the day was when I heard  someone say “I guess American cooking is not just McDonald’s!”