Archive for November 2008

Thanksgiving Geometry

November 28, 2008

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If I ever get tired of cooking I can always open a spa for turkeys.  But for now, all I actually have in mind is to try poaching my bird before roasting it for our belated but much anticipated Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.  And here’s where we run into problems like “if we really and truly lived here I’d have a (insert missing item here: big enough stockpot, turkey lifter, 9×13″ pan, or whatever) but since we’re only visitors I’m trying to make do with what we’ve got.”  And we also run into the “why did I think I could have a seated dinner for 15 people in a rented house with a rock band playing in the living room?” problem, but that one’s easier to answer.  I’m nuts.

Contrary to appearances, after being subjected to several unnatural contortions, the turkey can be stuffed into the pot, albeit with ankles waving in the air and a back that will be shivering in the cold.  But since nobody really eats the ankles and the back, I’m not too worried about that.  I’m more worried about whether there will be any room in the pot for poaching liquid, and whether there will be enough meat for 15 people.  A 7 kilo turkey should feed 15 in theory, but it’s got legs as long and breasts as small as any Rockette, so I’m making lots of vegetables to flounce around it.

We do have enough tableware (thank you dear landlord), even if it doesn’t match, but what we are lacking is chairs.  In fact, after rearranging all of the furniture in the downstairs yesterday in order to a) create some combination of tables that will seat 15, and b) empty the living room so that the rock band Shel loves to play with can set up all their amps, microphones, and other gear in order to serenade the cook for a couple of hours before dinner, we still had to beg for a couple of folding chairs.  I’d have begged for a fainting couch too, but I don’t know where we’d put it.

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Once a motley assortment of tables was in place I rummaged for tablecloths and napkins.  Of course we don’t have enough matching stuff for 15, but I spent time choosing the patterns that clashed the least.  Reasonably satisfied with my selection, I went to the kitchen to oversee the toasting pecans, only to come back to the sight of Beppo and Zazou approving of our new arrangements.  It’s just like them to sprawl on the clean linen while we are under the furniture ferreting out the bits of feathers and other previously hidden evidence of their tireless hunting.  Not to mention the scorpion hibernating under a carton of wine I’d planned to serve. I must say that he had good taste, that scorpion, he chose the Chateau Calisse.

Today will be a giant puzzle.  If I make this dish ahead, I’ll have more oven space tomorrow, but there’s no room in the fridge to keep it overnight.  It’s gotten quite chilly recently, so in theory I could leave things outside to chill, but given the size of the rats that our little tablewarmers have been bringing in this week, I don’t think I’ll leave a tempting pan of corn pudding out to attract them.

Geometry was my worst subject in school, and it’s really being tested today.  And my next worst subject was typing.  Did I mention that the table formerly known as “my desk” has now become part of the meal plan?  Typing on my lap the good old fashioned way is really a chore.  I think I’d rather go peel a big heap of potatoes and start the court bouillon for the poaching pot.  But although things seem a bit desperate at the moment, I swear I’m not crying, I’m chopping onions!

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Giving Thanks For You

November 27, 2008

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I can’t keep it under my hat.  You, dear readers, are the best.  Probably you have no idea how much your comments mean to me.  Probably many of you don’t read the comments of your fellow readers.  So today, let me give thanks to all of you that have added your own words to French Letters this year.  Here’s just a small sampling of comments that have really inspired me to make French Letters all it can be.

“Thanks so much for always being a bright spot in our days, a faithful foodie and a wonderful writer.” K.

Thank you for sharing your travels and times with us, and for sharing your talents with us so generously.” Nancy

“Your blog brightens my day no matter how gloomy the weather!” Char

“Such a beautiful moment, reading your words, seeing the photos, your sentiment catches in my throat, and I feel my own life’s desires as I examine yours.” Rebecca

“That is some wonderful looking tripe! I love tripe so much!”  Rocky

Merci Abra pour tant de générosité de ta cuisine, tant de grâce autour de la table, tant d’amitié.”  Marie

“You’re a fine, fine writer….capturing, so well, the delights and the delight in your ‘voice’.”  Ray

“Abra, your last paragraph brought tears to my eyes…. Happy Anniversary and thank you for sharing your journey.”  Patti

“That Swiss Chard Pie looks absolutely splendid! Can’t wait to make it.”  John

“I finally went to this website…and it’s much more spectacular than I’d expected. If it were a book I’m sure I’d purchase it!”  Elaine

“Abra, the tenderness of this touched my heart.”  Margo

“I believe that you’d prove an admirable cook no matter what culture you dropped yourself down into.”  Jan

“We’ll raise a glass and smoke a brisket in your honour!”  Arne

I’m telling you, you have to take your blog and photos and make them into a book when you come back!”  Debra

“Thanks for making us feel like we are part of your excellent adventure .”  Sharon

“A cheeseburger is sometimes just what the doctor ordered.”  Carolyn

“We love you and love keeping up with you on your blog.”  Kathy and John

“You’re a gem Abra and our world is a better place because of you!”  Carrie

“I thank you for your authentic and most enjoyable writing which brings back holiday memories and “feeds” the urge to spend as soon as possible the next holidays in France again.”  Wolfgang

Your photos and writing help me to see my own surroundings with new joy and wonder.”  Heidi

I routinely read your blog mainly because it enables me to be transported to France vicariously….Your photographs are superb and your writing easy and interesting.”  Sandra

For the first time ever, I bought fresh sardines just based on this post!”  Rona

This entry sends me off to ponder the meaning of my existence and making it a life worth living. As for the future, while it is true many of us are drawn to reading your words because of a shared passion for food and drink, but the pleasure of reading this blog is found equally in entries that speak to totally unrelated topics. Which is a testament to the clarity of your writing and freshness of your perspective.” Shaya

“You captured the gleam of the kitchen, the scents in the air, the happy talk and laughter while sharing a wonderful time of cooking and eating. And there cannot be enough of your beautiful photography.”  Rachel

“Let no one underestimate the healing power of Rock and Roll, and the determination and courage of Shel and Abra.”  Barry

“Every day as I read your posts I find tears stinging my eyes.”  Lauren

“It looks delectable.”  Lucy

“You write with such beauty, clarity, and love.  This truly brought tears to my eyes.”  Andrea

“I really want to say how appreciative I am of your evocative, well-written, beautifully illustrated vignettes on your lives if France. Things, that I, as a French native, might not even have paid attention to.”  Sophie

“Your blog puts so much good karma into the world. I hope that it comes back to you tenfold.”  Lori

Your writing has opened my eyes and my mind into another country, another family’s way of living and putting food on the table and traveling and eating with friends and family, the good times and the not-so-good – I’ve laughed and cried over your blog entries – you’ve opened a door into your life in such a beautiful way.”  Karen 

“Vive la France! Vive le French Letters!”  Eden

See why I love you?  So thank you one and all, those mentioned here and those I’ll thank next year.  Thanks to the dozens of you that I know and the hundreds of you that I don’t.  Thanks for being here with me, and with each other, and may your Thanksgiving be delicious in every way.

Hope Springs

November 24, 2008

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Every time we go to Lyon our life takes a turn.  At the hospital, where each and every patient has cancer, all is orderly, purposeful.  People get cancer, nothing unusual about it.  We shouldn’t think we’re special, it’s happening to everyone there, that’s hospital logic.  Out on the street, people paint trees to match the graffitti on the walls.  Nothing ususual there either.  That too has its own kind of order, its own implacable logic. 

Cancer is redecorating our life in France, but not in colors that match our hopes and dreams. 

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We go up there on the train, the 200 mile an hour train.  It’s fast, smooth, and nearly silent.  On the walls of the train cars are pictures of little cell phones, eyes closed, slumbering peacefully.  It’s been a long time since I slept as well as those little phones.

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We emerge from the train station and breathe deeply, readying ourselves for the news of the day.  We’re still waking up, remembering who we are and why we’re there.

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We dive down into the underground Metro, where sometimes the doors slam on us, and since the train has no driver there’s no one to help.  It sounds like a metaphor, but that’s how it actually is some days.  Other days it just feels like that.

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It’s hard to see where you’re going when you’re on cancer’s slippery slope, when your body lets you down and you can’t wake up from that dream of falling.  When the door slams on you.

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We fight for balance in our lives.  Time to breathe, time to sing, time to make Thanksgiving shopping lists, time to scream into the pillow, time to clean the cat box, time for a shivering no sweater can calm, time for a crossword puzzle, time for a glass of wine, two glasses, time to wait and wait and wait and see what the doctors will say next.

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You just don’t know where you’ll end up when you fall through cancer’s trap door.  Today we’re off to Lyon again, off to see the wizard.  There must be a magic wand somewhere and we’re looking for it, whether it’s in Lyon, or Barcelona, or London, or Seattle.  Hope springs.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

November 23, 2008

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When you’re trying to avoid thinking about cancer and life’s other crashing insults, trying to force dark things into some semblance of perspective, I recommend a visit to a place where people have been living for thousands of years.  A place that’s tripped over all the stumbling blocks known to man and lived to tell the tale.  And I recommend drinking lots of coffee.  Thus we recently found ourselves in the ancient town of Carpentras, where the walls lean close to whisper together

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 and where we had the best cup of coffee we’ve ever had in France.

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Roasted on site at Les Cafés d’Antan, poetically translated as “the coffees of yesteryear,” it was a delicious taste of the past, a time when we lived where good coffee practically runs in the streets.  I’m not sure why it’s so hard to find the good stuff here, but now we have a source, and we brought home a reassuring supply. 

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Les Cafés d’Antan also sells gorgeous chocolate bars

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and as an added bonus, a trip to their bathroom offers this beautiful glimpse of the building’s past.

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Out in the street all is calm, all is bright,

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and Carpentras reveals itself to be a place where the very old and the very young mingle casually.  But what it’s really well known for is its weekly market, where you can buy everything from clothing, bedding, and jewelry

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to vegetable art

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and the makings of a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.  You could actually make about twenty or thirty pies from this specimen, but fortunately it’s sold by the slice.

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Hungry, and having read really good things about Chez Serge, we ascended another picturesque staircase and had an impeccably delicious lunch

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in a sun-filled room with zinc-topped tables

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that included a garlic-roasted chicken set on a bed of roasted green peas that I’ll be copying at home as soon as I can.

We walked back to the car, reluctant to break the spell.  But just to prove that things are not always just what they seem to be on the surface, and maybe this is true of cancer too, Carpentras had the last laugh.

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Death Wish Pasta

November 21, 2008

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Trompettes de la mort they’re called, death trumpet mushrooms.  At least , on the very few occasions I’ve seen any in the US they were plainly labeled, in French, as trompettes de la mort.  It sounds chic, to the non-Francophone ear, palatable, alluring. 

“What’s for dinner, honey?”  “French autumn mushrooms with pasta.”  “Oh, good.  I was afraid you were going to try to poison me with death trumpets.”

But when I saw them in the market here they were labeled simply as “trompettes.”  “Are those trompettes de la mort?” I asked the mushroom lady.  She cast a quick look around the stand, making sure I was the only one that heard.  “Yes,” she murmered, “but I just call them trompettes because, well, you know.”

I knew.  But what I didn’t really know was how to cook them, or rather, how to clean them before cooking.  I’ve been thoroughly schooled in the “never wash a mushroom” way of life, and these clearly needed some sort of cleaning, growing, as they do, under piles of dead leaves.  The mushroom lady gave me the secret, and now I’m giving it to you. 

I cooked them in the simplest manner possible, and ate every one myself.  Shel is just beginning to eat mushrooms, after a long life of abstinence, and the death trumpet is not a beginner’s mushroom.  It has a sober hint of bitterness, a seductive little heart of darkness that keeps you wanting just one more bite, while offering the sweet certainty that you’ll live to cook another day.

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As you can see, they’re not pretty when cooked, and actually they look rather evil, so don’t serve them to anyone who is easily frightened by food.  In fact, I would recommend that you don’t share them at all, but then your friends might have to kill you in order to get some.

Pasta with Trompettes de la Mort

Take as many trompettes as you can lay your hands on and put them in a colander.  Rinse them under running water, shaking the colander to dislodge any bits of forest floor that might be clinging to them.  Let drain briefly.  Place the wet mushrooms in a dry nonstick pan over medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are completely dry.  Now add some sort of fat.  I used goose fat, and suggest that you do too if possible.  If you can’t get goose fat then duck fat would also be good, and olive oil or butter would each lend their special qualities in a pinch.  When the fat and the mushrooms are hot, toss in a handful of chopped parsley and some chopped garlic.  Sizzle together until it’s all toasty and tantalizing, then toss with pasta.  Eat it and live.

The Art Of The Apple

November 18, 2008

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My favorite French cooking apples are the reine de reinettes, a queen of apples if ever there was one.  It’s an old European apple, one  that doesn’t have a real equivalent among its youthful American cousins.  It’s too soft to eat raw, hovers between sweet and slightly tart, and is meltingly luscious when cooked.  A tasty relative?  The reinettes de Vigan.  I hadn’t seen any Viganais apples here yet this year, so over the weekend when we were up in Le Vigan and I saw a little organic grocery selling them, I bought a sackful.

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Aren’t they beautiful?  To my eye they look like the golden apples of Atalanta must have looked, before transnational shipping practices and standards of conformity for beauty and size dictated the look of our fruit bowl.  Before I even had time to think about what to do with them, the daily paper’s recipe appeared before my eyes.

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I’ve already written here about the daily recipe offerings to be found in the Midi Libre, but this recipe looked more intriguing than most.  A sort of apple mosaic with cinnamon, a layered baked applesauce, a chilled flourless apple cake, what?  It was difficult to visualize the results by reading the recipe, but it looked satisfyingly fussy to prepare, and containing only apples, cinnamon, sugar, and butter, it was bound to highlight my special fruit.  It called for layering thinly sliced Royal Gala apples in a caramel-coated pan with cinnamon sugar and a little butter, then baking it for 3 hours, then chilling it overnight.  However, I was bound and determined to use my reinettes de Vigan, in defiance of the instructions.  It’s not my best characteristic, but sometimes I just don’t want to do what I’m told.

So I sliced up my apples, too thinly as it turns out.  I made the caramel and coated the bottom of the pan; although the recipe called for coating the sides as well there wasn’t enough caramel, so in the recipe below I’ve doubled the caramel for you.  I layered the apples as prettily as I could.  The pan called for, a moule à cake,  is like a bread pan, only narrower, use a silicone terrine mold if you have one.  The hardest part turned out to be finding a weight that could sit on the pan in the oven.  Cans were out, since the temperature would go over boiling.    What to use for the weights?

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I settled on dishes filled with lentils.  I love these little dishes, originally used in the mid-1840’s to hold pigments in a pottery factory.  I baked the terrine for three hours, during which time it went from filling a pan about 4″ deep to being only an inch and a half high, while the juices went, you guessed it, all over the oven rack.  I chilled it overnight.  This morning I unmolded it and had some for breakfast. Was it all worth it?  Judge for yourself.

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Is it gorgeous?  Not really, although it is interesting to look at.  I think slicing the apples thicker would better emphasize the mosaic effect, or perhaps using the Royal Gala apples the recipe calls for would have made a huge difference.  But was it delicious?  Yes, in an understated chilled apple compote way.  In fairness, the recipe suggests serving it with crème anglaise, and I ate it with only a splash of fresh cream.  It’s not life-changing, but it’s very good.  It has the additional advantage of being gluten-free, for those who care about that.  I’m going to try it again with a firmer apple, the Royal Galas, or maybe even Golden Delicious, which are highly prized here for making tarte tatin.  It you make it and find an apple that looks as beautiful after being baked as it does beforehand, please tell us what you used.  If yours is prettier than mine, send me a picture and I’ll post it here.

Chilled Apple Terrine

1.5 kilos/3.3 lbs apples, peeled, quartered, seeded, and sliced
170 gms/6 oz sugar, divided use
4 T water
1 tsp cinnamon
30 gms/1 oz butter, cut into tiny pieces

Place 100 gms/3.5 ounces of the sugar with the water in a small saucepan.  Let simmer until you have a caramel of a deep amber color.  Pour this caramel very carefully into your pan or mold and swirl to cover the bottom and sides of the pan.  You won’t be able to cover it completely, but it’s all going to melt back down anyway, so don’t worry.

Preheat the oven to 130°C/265°F.  Mix the remaining sugar with the cinnamon in a small bowl.  Make one beautiful layer of the sliced apples on top of the caramel.  This will be the top when you turn out the dessert, so make it as pretty as possible.  Sprinkle the layer with cinnamon sugar and little bits of butter.  Repeat until you’ve used up all of the ingredients.  I made 7 layers in all – just be sure to come out even with the apples, cinnamon sugar, and butter.  Press the fruit down firmly in the pan, cover the top with parchment paper, and set oven-proof weights on top of the pan.  Place the pan on a foil-lined baking sheet.  Bake for 3 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven, leaving the weights in place, and let cool for an hour.  Remove weights and parchment and unmold the apple terrine onto a platter.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  To serve, slice into thick slices and plate on a pool of with crème anglaise or fresh cream.

In The Hands Of A Chef

November 16, 2008

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When the chef comes out of the kitchen to show you why he prefers sweet potatoes from Israel to those from Brazil, you know you’ve met someone whose heart is in his food.  No white jacket, no tall hat.  Just a love of great ingredients, subtle spices, and the people who come to him to be fed.

Craving spicy food and a drive in the sunny autumn countryside, we trekked some 80 kilometers, about 50 miles, to Le Vigan.  I’d stumbled upon this reference to Sirima Bamassé, a chef from Burkina Faso, producing soul-satisfying food in the Cévennes foothill town better known for its reinettes de Vigan apples than its African cuisine.  We had to have some.

Alas, as we learned when we arrived, one is supposed to order African food at least a day in advance.  Otherwise the menu consists of delicious-sounding French dishes that would tempt any diner, except those seeking the heat and exoticism of faraway places.  I asked whether, if we just put ourselves in his hands,  he would be so kind as to make us the most African meal possible under the circumstances, and his already warm smile grew brighter.

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He started us with a gorgeous salad of lightly spicy and crispy shrimp, in a salad with a perfect balance of ginger, lime, and chile.  That, and a little dish of a “be very careful with this, only Africans can really eat it” hot sauce set our tastebuds to dancing.  For the record, Americans can eat it too, and are very willing and happy to do so.

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Then we had a beautiful dish, centered on lush and velvety beef tongue, with fried sweet potatoes and plantain, and for the “little touch of the Cévennes” a ragout of forest mushrooms, chestnuts, and greens.  A spoonful of a spicy and salty mix, whose name sounded like quinquinquin, came alongside, and we sprinkled it and the “for Africans only” hot sauce liberally on our plates until our insides were all aglow, just as we’d wanted them to be.  If anybody knows about Burkinabé cuisine and knows the real name, and even better, the recipe, for that spice mix, please do tell! 

We followed that with a trio of crème brulées to share, pistachio, cardamom, and chicory, the last being my personal favorite.  It was one of our best restaurant meals ever in France, not to mention that the chef and his partner, who guards the front of the house, are the nicest people imagineable.

After he’d come to our table to show us the sweet potatoes, and even the beef from the cooler, to make a point about using the best ingredients possible, I asked her “Is he always like that, so generous?”  “Bien sûr, c’est un Africain,” she said.  “Of course, he’s African.”  And she went on to say “If an African has nothing but a banana, he’ll give you half.”

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That’s just what we need in this world, and we’ll be going back for more as soon as we can.  You’re probably thinking that 80 kilometers is a long way to go for lunch, but then, you haven’t tasted this beautiful food.  Go, if you can, and call ahead, ask for Burkinabé food, and imagine an Africa where everyone has all the bananas they need.