Archive for October 2008

Giving A Fig

October 31, 2008


Another day, another festival.  That’s one of the things we love the most about France, there’s always a party somewhere, and we’re always invited.  In this case, it was the fig festival in the old medieval town of Vézénobres, a beautiful showcase for one of my favorite fruits.

There were figs in forms I’d never before imagined.

These beautiful little candies in the shape of figs looked too beautiful to eat, and at 1 Euro per piece, you can join me in imagining how good they must have tasted, because we’ll never know.

Ditto, or idem, as you say in French, for these utterly gorgeous tarts.  The fact that I wasn’t even tempted to buy these ultra-attractive treats must mean that I wasn’t actually there for the figs.  As it turned out, what I really wanted was

to see artisans selling their wares,

some of which looked a lot better than they tasted.  Really, I bought a cookie here because the cookies looked like they might have come from a much earlier time and the guy looked like he needed a customer.  The dry mouthful made me think that the “earlier time” might have been a baking date several days prior to the festival, as opposed to the ancient recipe I’d imagined, but I didn’t…  You were waiting for me to say that I didn’t give a fig, right?  The thing is, we were there because people did give a fig, even if it wasn’t about figs per se.

They cared enough to get dressed up

even though our friend Alain, always impeccably turned out, looks like he might have a touch of robe envy.

They cared enough to dance and make music in the streets.

And yes, some of it was really and truly about the figs.  But in general I think the day was about the French love of color and pageantry and dressing up and getting together to have a great time in a beautiful setting, and whenever possible, making something to eat or drink be the star attraction.  It’s pretty hard to argue with that as a lifestyle. 

Coming from a Puritan land, as we do, we’ve had to get over the feeling that we ought to be doing something productive, or meaningful, whatever that means.  But I’m here to say that we’re pretty nearly over it now, and we can hardly think of a nicer way to spend the day than traipsing around an ancient place with friends and friendly strangers, all of us in the mood to celebrate.  Something.  Anything.

And in case there aren’t enough fig recipes in your life, here’s one of my all-time favorite things to make with dried figs Fig and Walnut Tapenade with Goat Cheese.  Getting a little dressed up when you serve it doesn’t hurt either.

Anti-Virus Eggplant

October 28, 2008

Here’s a quick patch for your winter woes.  The next time you find yourself in the midst of a cold rainy day, knocked for half a loop by some stray virus and in need of sustenance, let me recommend my lunch today.  I couldn’t decide whether I felt too terrible to cook, or too terrible not to.  Naturally, cooking won out, aided by my discovery, in the recesses of the fridge, of two perfect roasted eggplants that I’d had the foresight to prepare some days ago, and then promptly forgot about.

Eggplant is a most forgiving vegetable, and having a roasted eggplant in the fridge is an open invitation to something delicious.  And with garlic being the firewall of the vegetable kingdom, I’d even go so far as to say that having two small, sweet, last of the season pre-roasted eggplants in the fridge and a heap of pungent new garlic on the counter is a cure for pretty much any bug.   Here’s all you need to do:

Anti-Virus Eggplant

2 small fresh eggplants
2 T butter
4 large cloves garlic
2 T double concentrated tomato paste (from a tube)

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C.  Set the whole, unpeeled eggplants on a baking tray and roast them until they’re soft and collapsed-looking, 30-45 minutes, depending on your eggplants.  Next you can either let them cool until you can handle them, or put them in the fridge and finish the dish another day, possibly after you’ve caught the first winter cold that’s going around.

Peel the eggplants, scoop out the insides, and discard the skins.  Cut the eggplant into large bite-sized chunks, as it’s going to shrink and smoosh as you cook it further.   Peel and roughly chop the garlic.  Melt the butter in a sauté pan and add the eggplant and garlic.  Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is golden and the garlic is tender, about 8-10 minutes.  Add the tomato paste and stir until the paste is evenly distributed throughout the eggplant and has also browned a bit.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

I served this over quinoa scented with ras el hanout, with some sinus-clearing harissa on the side, but you can feel free to eat it according to the state of your pantry, with pasta, as part of a composed salad, or even as a sandwich spread.  And honestly, I think butter is better here than olive oil, just in case you were thinking of substituting.  But I know how you are.  If you feel that you absolutely must change something about this recipe, add more garlic!

Bunny Day, It’s A Bonne Idée

October 25, 2008

What’s a Bunny Day, if not a Festival to celebrate the Glory of the Rabbit in Gastronomy and Nature?  What’s a bonne idée?  A good idea.  What’s the connection?  They’re pronounced the same way.  So now, the next time you’re in a meeting and you think saying “good idea” would be too prosaic, you can say Bunny Day.  And, of course, having a day devoted to bunnies in all their glory is also a very good idea.

The seal above belongs to the Order of the Knights of the Burrow, the Brotherhood of the Burrow and the Hutch.

This is delightfully serious business, as our friends Christian and Alice can attest.  Serious, as in they organized a day that included a rabbit show and sale, a rabbit cooking contest, and a community rabbit meal for several hundred people.  Delightful, as in I want to join the Brotherhood myself just so I too can have a hat with ears, like Alice.

I really don’t know what I should do first, show you the glorious bunny gastronomy, or the little beauties themselves.  Just remember that the bunnies you are about to see are not the bunnies on the plate.  These are really special bunnies, sold to breeders of ancient bunnydom, and as pets.  There’s no use even thinking about eating these bunnies, they’re much too beautiful.

We’re talking about bunnies like the Chamois de Thuringe,

the Argenté de Champagne,

the Fauve de Bourgogne,

the Géant Papillon Français,

and the Nain Russe.  These are but a few examples of bunny pulchritude, as seen in nature. 

Then we pass, inevitably, to the gastronomic angle, in the form of a competition for mostly apprentice chefs to create rabbit dishes to be served cold.  These were judged strictly, according to seasoning, originality of presentation, appropriateness of garnishes, excellence of sauces, and so on.  I know all this because, ta da, I was invited to be on the panel of chefs.  Real French chefs, that is, to whom the presence of an “American journalist” was an unexpected turn of events; I had a blast in any case, even if my credentials as a chef were suspect.  There were 15 different dishes to taste and evaluate, and wine to help the process along, of course, since all of this took place before lunch, namely, at 10:30 in the morning.  Let me just say that if you have to eat rabbit early in the morning, a little wine doesn’t hurt, and more is better.

This dish, one of my favorites, was actually submitted by an amateur.  I thought it held up really well against the more cheffy preparations like

this little marvel.

This dish taught me the expression “plus beau que bon” or looks better than it tastes.

There were apprentice chef-type excesses like this riot of color,

and this morbid little number.  I thought this one was kind of interesting to look at, but the French chefs were gagging and tutting over it from the get go.

They really tended to prefer the most classic preparations, like this terrine, which was an education in itself. My high marks for one delicious dish that was full of ginger and mustard seeds and reminded me of a rabbit in the wide open spaces earned me a rather contemptuous nose twitch from the chef sitting next to me.  That’s ok, I too can twitch my nose with the best of the bunnies, but why bother?

There were bunnies paraded through the streets,

lots of gorgeous guys in costume,

our friend Chantal who walked 20 kilometers to pay homage to all things rabbit,

and even bunny wine, of which we all had rather a lot.  It was, all day long, totally a Bonne Idée!

Down The Rabbit Hole

October 22, 2008

Shel’s voice has been fading away all day long, but we tried to take full advantage of yesterday.  In a triumph of the mundane over the romantic, that has unfortunately included utterances like “have you paid the bills yet?”, “the shower drain is stopped up again,” and “is there enough gas in the car to get to the train station?”  Because tomorrow we’re off to Lyon to see the cancer doctors, to find out what our options are.  We know it’s going to be a life-changing visit, but we don’t know in what ways.  Outside the wind is whipping, there’s been thunder and lightning, and all I really want to do is put my head under the covers and suck my thumb.  And I don’t even suck my thumb.  But you know what I mean.

Speaking of life-changing visits, today was the final home nurse visit from Shel’s last hospitalization.  At first twice a day, then once, then three times a week, a nurse came to the house to give injections, draw blood, and change bandages.  The bill for two weeks worth of in-home TLC?  90 Euros, about $125.  Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Keep warm, speak kindly to the ones you love, and suck your thumb for me.

Losing And Finding The Way

October 21, 2008

One day it occurs to you that your baby hasn’t sat in your lap for months, is now in fact nearly a teenager, and will never be yours in quite that way again.  If you’d only been able to see the future more clearly, you’d have made it last and last, that one momentous and final time.

For the past week Shel hasn’t been able to speak, only to whisper.  When he first feared losing his voice to cancer, about 14 years ago, he sat up all night singing and playing the guitar, recording his clear sweet baritone for posterity.  Inevitably, no one now knows where that tape is, and neither of us remembers his voice as it once was.  But when he started whispering, I found that I couldn’t even remember with perfect clarity the voice he had last week.  I never imagined that I wouldn’t hear it again, didn’t know what I’d be missing, one fine, silent day.

One morning you wake up and something excruciatingly precious to you is gone forever.  You can say “c’est la vie” all you want, but you know you’re lying.

But although leaves have been falling all around us, this one heart-leaf has hung on, right outside our bedroom window, even through yesterday’s storm.  Shel was on the road in that storm, on the way to Montpellier for a band rehearsal, his last before whatever is to come next, surgically speaking.  He doesn’t sing with the band, just plays a virtuoso bass, so a whisper would suffice.  Barry came to get him, so he didn’t have to drive.  I stayed home and started writing about loss.

But today Shel returned from Montpellier speaking in a beautiful, clear voice.  This morning Barry took him to see Sylvie, who put her hand on his throat.  Twice.  And then, he could talk again.  No way.  Pas possible.  Way.

They Love Us, They Love Us Not

October 19, 2008

One of my favorite Sunday morning guilty pleasures is reading the Version Femina that comes in our newspaper, the Midi Libre.  It’s guilt-inducing because a lot of it is about how to match your eyebrows to the season’s hottest colors, what super-models eat between lettuce leaves, how much some really sexy young actor loves to change his baby’s diapers, and that sort of universal pap that women are supposed to adore.  And I do.  Because I can read entire articles and understand every word, and because it proves to me that French women aren’t really born knowing how to be the way they are, they have to read up on it every Sunday like the rest of us.

But today, oh wow, see that headline?  “Do We Or Do We Not Love The USA?”  Ok!  Now finally we get to find out whether the Freedom Fries debacle and the cruel dumping of French wine left a lasting impression.  At least, that’s what I hoped. The reality of the article is that the people surveyed were mainly responding to a multiple choice list, which tells us a lot about the person who made up the list, as well as something about the respondents.

For example, here’s the list of places the survey creator thought might be the most iconically American.  No translation needed here, and not many surprises, unless it’s that Mississippi and Key West made the list while San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle didn’t.  And the Maison Blanche, the White House, is apparently the stand-in for Washington, which is understandable given the way news is reported here.

This little sidebar makes the point that although it’s been almost twenty years since French television showed the TV series Dallas, for 46% of the people surveyed, the show is still the incarnation of Americana.  I have to admit that, although I myself have never seen Dallas, I do find this factlet surprising.  A nation of filthy rich cowboy blonde sexpot oil baron sleazeball scandal-mongers, is that us?  Or have I got it wrong?  Remember, I’m the one who never watched Dallas, unlike, evidently, a gazillion French people.

Now here on the left we see a reflection of a curious facet of French life.  In France, it’s the film directors that get the attention and publicity, before the actors.  So while we see that Steven Spielberg is properly appreciated in France, it also comes to light that, for some reason that escapes me, Woody Allen appeals to audiences here.  Last night we happened to see his latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which we thought was generally pretty terrible as movies go, although it was apparently appreciated by the mostly-French audience with whom we shared the theater.  To which I can only say “Ah, bon,” which is a polite French way to say “go figure.”

And on the right, the Brand Wars.  No surprise that Coke and McDonalds are on top, but Harley Davidson?  There’s Google and Apple but no Microsoft, Intel, or IBM.  Take that, geeks of America!  And how did Ray Ban even get on the list? 

Here, though, we get to the heart of things.  This is the part where no answers were suggested, where respondents spoke freely when answering the question “What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think about the US?”  La grandeur et la puissance.  Its size, and its power.  Those are really two different things, of course, but I think that by combining them people mean to speak of the country’s large and mighty aspect, as opposed to the “country so big it takes five whole days to drive across” aspect.  And then, New York, which seems fair since I think Paris would be at the top of most of our lists if we were answering the same question about France.  And then, Monsieur Bush.  Here I’ll just heave a parenthetical sigh and say that every French person I know is rooting vigorously for Obama.

It’s heartening to see that fast food is dead last on the list, although it’s only one percentage point behind the war in Iraq, imperialism, the dollar, and the 9/11 attacks.  And it’s also heartening that, if you look at the fine print in the very first picture, you’ll see that 62% of the people who participated in this survey like the US.  62 % yes, 38% no, and there’s not even the electoral vote to consider.  Folks, I think we can declare a winner here. 

So please, say thank you by going out and buying a bottle of nice French wine.  The economy’s in rough shape over here too, and the winemakers need your support.  And since the economy over there’s no better, a good bottle of wine is just what the doctor ordered.

Any Port In A Storm

October 16, 2008

You know how you can be walking down the street, heading for home, thinking about what to make for supper, minding your own sweet business, when suddenly you get run over by a herd of zebras?   Ok, you’re right, there aren’t too many zebras in France.  And there’s not much about this story that’s particular to France, except in the sense that people everywhere get ill and suffer and struggle.  Even in France, the land of wine and cheese and socialized medicine.

Maybe trains make a more apt metaphor.  France is justly famous for its speeding trains, and while no one plans to get hit by one, people do.  They’re big, they’re fast, they come at you out of nowhere, and its no use thinking that you can see every one coming.  Every railroad crossing here has a sign that says “Un train peut en cacher un autre.”  The train you see coming may conceal another train, the one you can’t see until it’s too late. 

While Shel’s been in the hospital getting taken apart and put back together for one thing and another, it turns out that the cancer he’s been fighting for fourteen years has been growing alarmingly.  It’s pretty scary this time, and I have to admit it: we’re scared.  We have a week to wait and wonder and worry and wish things were different, and although the time will pass in any case, we have to fill it somehow.

Whenever possible, Beppo naps luxuriously.  Cats are supposed to sleep about twenty hours a day, and there are days when we wish we could too.

Zazou gets herself up the tallest trees in the garden and then sometimes mews in terror.  But more often, after a lot of crashing and claw-gnashing, she lands on her feet.  We hope we will too.

France or no France, gastronomic mecca or not, Shel’s been asking for an astounding assortment of meals: hot dogs, cheeseburgers, barbecue.  Food from long ago and faraway, when life seemed safer.  I make it for him as best I can, but me, I’m trying to keep my cool by eating as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

We’re each coping in our own way, although Zazou has it the easiest, since this exact life is all she knows.  The rest of us remember a brighter time, and hope to see another.


October 13, 2008

“Who’s making the aligot, you?  But it’s so hard to make, so hard to get the right cheese.  I’ve never tried making it at home,” said the sweet lady in the butcher shop as she sold me the almost-correct sort of sausages.

“You’re really making it yourself?  I can’t believe it.   (subtext: an American making a mythically difficult and locally rare dish???)  Would you mind bringing me some leftovers?” said the friendly guy who sold me the just-right type of potatoes.

Mais oui, I’ve been itching to make the famous dish of the Aubrac region, ever since I accidentally happened across the special cheese while making a random visit to a market in La Calmette.  Actually, some people insist that you have to have the Appellation Contrôlée tome fraîche from Laguiole, but this cheese seemed as close as I’d ever get, so far from the ancestral land of aligot.  So I brought the cheese home with me, and began a race against time, since some people say the cheese shouldn’t be more than 3-4 days old.  But then some people say it can be 10 days old.  Some people ought to get together and agree about things!

In any case, I had to get moving, and of course, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, having been the recipient of so much amazement and laughing encouragement, not to mention being in possession of a possibly slightly sub-optimal cheese.  Extensive research was in order.

The web is replete with recipes and serving suggestions for aligot.  The basics are similar: about a kilo of floury potatoes to 400 grams or so of tome fraîche, the special young fresh cheese that will later in its life become the famous aged cheese of Laguiole.  But after that, there’s no great agreement.  Crème fraîche, liquid cream, milk, butter, some or all of the above?  Garlic or not?  Even nutmeg made its appearance in a few recipes.  After copying down several variations I decided that I had a feel for the dish in general.

But I also had a secret weapon: our friend Maryse, who lived for several years in aligot-land, which I hoped would tip the scales of aligot success in our favor.

Now, before I go into detail, if you’d like a musical accompaniment, click here then click the little green arrow under Ecouter la Chanson, for a cute Aligot Saucisse song, complete with printed lyrics so that you can sing along.

And if the catchy tune inspires you to have a glass of wine before you try singing along, my research told me that a merlot is a good accompaniment to aligot.  I picked a wine that’s only 75% merlot, and really not from the region where aligot is queen, but one which has the additional allure of sharing a name with Maryse’s daughter who’s just gone off to study in a faraway city,

Cuvée Noémie.  Noémie nostalgia aside, it was a good choice, because you want a red with a good level of fruit balanced by a nice acidity and structured tannins, to make its presence known amidst the crème fraîche, cream, milk, butter, cheese, and oh yes, the piles of potatoes.

So, you make a smooth purée of everything but the cheese, get it all good and hot, then, here’s the tricky part.  You have to stir like crazy, and lift the mixture in the air, while adding the cheese.  Some people say you have to stir in a figure eight pattern, some say always in one direction, but all say that you need a strong arm or two in order to succeed in getting the aligot to fall in elastic sheets from the spoon.  Maybe we weren’t strong enough, or maybe we had a slightly wrong blend of dairy products, or maybe our moon wasn’t aligned with aligot, or maybe the AOC goddess was punishing us for our inferior cheese, but the best we could do was

a purée that was a bit elastic, but nothing like the famous you-have-to-cut-it-with-scissors texture we were aiming for.  Oh well, it still tasted very good.

We had it with sausage (aligot…saucisse!  aligot…saucisse!) and a tart, bitter salad of arugula and garden herbs in a mustardy Savora vinaigrette.

Can you make this dish in America?  Maybe.  The cheese wasn’t exactly like anything I’ve seen in the U.S.  The closest thing to the very mild tome fraîche might be Teleme, but that’s creamier and sweeter, and anyway, the fabled elasticity is supposed to result only from the One True Cheese.  There’s just one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on, and that’s that not even any other cheese in France is allowed to be substituted, and, as you know,  there’s a lot of cheese in France.

Probably my best recommendation is to make some cheesy, garlicky mashed potatoes, serve them with a good pork sausage, have a nice merlot and a salad on the side, and sing, sing, sing.  Altogether now “aligot…saucisse!  aligot…saucisse!”

Either that, or take a trip to the Aubrac and try the real thing.  I’m tempted to do just that myself.

So Eat Something, Already

October 10, 2008

No matter how tough life gets, how bare the pantry, how little time you have to prepare something to eat, you can always whip up some tuna foam, which sounds a whole lot better when you call it Spuma di Tonno.  Thank you, Michael Chiarello, for one of the best little pantry snacks that ever came into my life.  And although it’s in vogue to modify a thing or two here or there, I can’t even claimed to have changed his recipe one iota.  It’s fabulous as it is, so good that I’ve never been tempted to adapt it in the slightest.

I love to serve it with crudités or lightly steamed vegetables.  It’s great on crackers and bread.  It’s good on a spoon, and licking it off your fingers is pretty nice too.  Tuck it in your lunchbox, take it on a picnic, eat it for a solitary late-night snack.  One of its best attributes is that it takes under five minutes to put together; in fact, you’ll spend more time washing your food processor than you’ll spend in preparing this dish.  Just be sure to use the best tuna you can get, and don’t even think of using the water-packed stuff.

Spuma di Tonno

1  7 oz. can  of Italian or Spanish imported tuna packed in oil
2  tsp  lemon juice
2  tsp  soy sauce
2  tsp  balsamic vinegar
4 tsp softened butter
1 T  heavy cream
plenty of salt and pepper to taste

Drain the tuna and pulse it once or twice in the food processor to break it up.  With the machine running, add the lemon juice, soy sauce, and vinegar.  Add the butter and blend until smooth, scraping down the sides of the container as necessary.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Add the cream and pulse a few times to blend.  Do not over-process the spuma after adding the cream or the mixture may break.

You want to serve this at room temperature, so it’s smooth and creamy.  If you do make it ahead, be sure to remove it from the fridge an hour before serving.

I haven’t tried this yet with sardines or mackerel, but I can’t see any reason why that wouldn’t be equally delicious.  Mmmm, fish foam.  Just trust me on this one.

The Comforts Of Home

October 9, 2008

Finally, yesterday, we creaked and draggled our way home from the hospital.  You’d think we’d have hopped and skipped, but a person who hasn’t even walked more than a few hundred feet in two weeks is pretty creaky, even when he isn’t glued together with gauze and steri-strips.

Shel’s first thought was to get into his own bed with his own pillow and someone warm.  Zazou was happy to oblige, being one of those kittens whose idea of heaven is to snuggle up to you under the covers and purr up a storm.  His second thought was to put in his dinner order, something to banish the memory of those frightening hospital meals.  Although let the record show that the dinner-serving ladies always came around and offered both of us coffee as they took away Shel’s tray, a redeemingly civilized touch. 

So, after 10 days of fasting, followed by a week of hospital food,  do you think he was dreaming of foie gras?  Or was it coq au vin?  Or even tarte aux pommesMais non.  What he wanted most was a hot dog with relish and yellow mustard, potato chips, and a Coke.

It’s hard to break out of the cocoon, to leave the security of knowing that it’s someone’s job to look after you night and day and make sure that you’re alive and well.  Shel’s nurses were all young, practically no one looked to be a minute over 30.  Probably that’s because they work long and hard, doing 12 hour shifts as a matter of course, with a nurse to patient ratio that seems low by our norms.  And although in our experience, French nurses don’t plump pillows and offer cool compresses, they do keep an eye on you and are competent, warm, and efficient caregivers.  Not to mention that they were always giving him, and me, free French lessons. 

Although I’m sure that Shel regrets no longer being tended to by a bevy of cute young nurses, we do have one coming to the house for the next week or so.  She gives shots, changes bandages, and generally keeps an eye on things in a reassuring way.  She charges 5 Euros to come to the house for a shot, which is about $6.80 at today’s exchange rate.  Of course, we had to go to the pharmacy to get all the drugs and bandaging supplies that she’ll be using, which was another 162 Euros, or $220.  That means that a week of home nursing care will set us back about $300.

We haven’t seen the hospital bill yet.  They did ask us for a deposit check when we arrived, but went to some pains to explain that they wouldn’t cash it, it was only a caution, just in case we were to skip out on our bill.  Full of trepidation, I begged for an estimate as we were on our way out the door.  The nice lady who was handling our bon de sortir form, which can be charmingly translated as “good to go,” gave me what she insisted was a very rough estimate: three surgeries, blood work, scans and X-rays, drugs, nursing care and doctor visits, and 17 days in the hospital, 13 of them in a private room.  Are you reaching for the piggy bank yet?  She thought it might all come to 4000 Euros.  That’s about $5,450.  And she told me not to hesitate to request installment payments, if it was too hard to pay it all at once.

Of course, maybe it will cost more.  Maybe it will cost 5000 Euros.  And there’s the stuff we got at the pharmacy, and the home nurse, and a couple of diagnostic scans we had to have done before the hospital swallowed us up.  There was also an ambulance trip, although no one seems sure whether we’ll get a bill for that or not.  I’m thinking that it’s not likely to come to $8,000.  Total.  Think about it.

Oh, wait.  I forgot the cost of the hot dog dinner.  That’s part of the cure too, non?