Archive for February 2009

Terrine Confessions

February 26, 2009

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Last week I needed to make a terrine for my wine tasting class, something to go with red wines.  Something sturdy, but with plenty of moelleux.  Now there’s a word that has no real equivalent in English, and it’s used all the time in French, to mean melting, mellow, creamy, soft, or even sweet.  It’s a delicious word, and I wanted to make an especially delicious terrine.

There was a recipe I’d been saving for ages, a terrine of lièvre, or hare, and it looked perfect.  There was just one problem: unless you’re a hunter, there’s no hare to be had at this time of year.  Actually there were two and a half problems, since the recipe also called for the liver of the hare, similarly unavailable, and pork liver, another thing I seldom see.  And a potential problem, the recipe called for pork throat, which sounded obscure and not especially delicious.

I took the recipe down to my butcher and asked him to help me make some substitutions.  He had the pork throat and the crépine to line the pan, no problem.  Pork throat is something I’ve never really contemplated using, nor had I even seen one.  I still haven’t, since he ground it up for me, but I have to confess that it didn’t sound exactly appetizing.  For the hare and pork livers he suggested substituting chicken livers, as opposed to veal or lamb liver, since they were the strongest livers he had.  And we settled on using pintade, or guinea fowl, instead of the hare.  It wasn’t going to be the same as the original recipe, but it was going to be good.  We were both optimistic, the butcher and I.  And so I went cheerfully home to get started, five days before I wanted to serve the terrine.

Just a note about crépine, in case you haven’t used it before, it’s that lacy layer you can see  above, around the finished terrine.  It helps to hold the terrine together, and bastes the meat as it cooks.   It’s a deeply interior part of the pig, I think we’d call it the omentum in a human, and when you buy it in English you ask for caul fat.  It has a peculiar beauty of its own, if you’re not, as I confess to having been the first time I saw one, grossed out by the whole notion.

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See what I mean?  It’s marvelous and slightly terrifying when raw.

But when I began to assemble the terrine ingredients,  for once, my pantry failed me.  The night before we’d had company for dinner and I’d used every scrap of chocolate in the house making a fondant au chocolat, a flourless chocolate cake that’s very moelleux.  And the terrine recipe definitely called for dark chocolate.  And I definitely did not want to go out again. 

That’s when my devilish cook’s brain started whispering “you know, you could toss the leftover cake into the terrine and it would be just as good.”  I mean really, how lazy am I?  It’s four minutes on foot to the store and I’m thinking about putting cake in there with the pork throat?  “But wait.  The cake is made of 70% chocolate, eggs, butter, and sugar.  Not too much sugar at that.  Why wouldn’t it slip secretly into the terrine, nestle up with the pintade that’s not a lièvre, and make something surprisingly good?”  I swear, the devil-chef  that lives under my hat made me do it: I dropped the leftover fondant au chocolat into the bowl and squished it out of sight.

The terrine was wildly delicious and much acclaimed.  Its was a perfect partner for an earthy Cornas syrah, which, if it didn’t cost 29 Euros a bottle, would become a house favorite.  Then one of my classmates asked for the recipe, and I realized that the jig was up.  I was going to have to confess to recycling dessert .  Ok world, now I’ve said it.  You can have your cake and eat it too, if you’re eating my cooking.

You can make this terrine and thank me later.  You could use duck if you can’t get either hare or guinea hen.  You are allowed to use just plain squares of a good chocolate.  You don’t actually have to make a flourless chocolate cake the night before, but I won’t discourage you.  Just play with your food.

Abra’s Devil’s Food Terrine*

500 gms boneless guinea hen, hare, or duck meat
300 gms chicken livers
500 gms pork throat meat
1 crépine
150 gms chestnuts, canned are fine
2 eggs
20 cl heavy cream
80 gms flourless chocolate cake, or 40 gms dark chocolate
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
8 sprigs Italian parsley
50 gms shelled pistachios
1 bay leaf
2 large pinches piment d’Espelette, or a bit of cayenne
1 large pinch of fresh thyme
22 gms fine salt
10 gms freshly ground pepper

Have your butcher grind the pork throat, guinea hen, and chicken livers together, using a coarse grind as for chili. 

Peel the onion and garlic and dice them very fine.  Pick the leaves off the parsley and chop fine.  Crumble the chestnuts with your fingers. Gently melt the chocolate, if you’re not using cake.  And really, why not use cake?

In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients together except for the pistachios and the bay leaf.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The next day remove the terrine mixture from the fridge, let it come up to room temperature for about an hour, then add in the pistachios.  Meanwhile, soak your caul fat in running cold water for a few minutes, then disentangle it and line a large terrine mold with it, leaving enough overhang all around to completely enclose the terrine.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F.  Pack the terrine mixture into the mold, heaping it up well, wrap the caul fat over the top, and trim the excess.  Set the bay leaf on top of it all and cover the pan tightly. 

Set the terrine mold in a bain marie of water that reaches halfway up the side of the mold and bake for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.   I cooked mine to 74°C/165°F in the center and thought that was just right.

Remove the terrine from the oven and immediately put heavy weights on top of it.  I do this by having a foil-covered piece of cardboard that just fits into the mold and placing some cans on top of that.  I also lean on it all pretty hard for a couple of minutes when it comes out of the oven to encourage the juices to emerge.  You should set the mold in a pan that will catch the juices that spill out of the terrine, and save them for addition to a soup or sauce at a later time.  When the terrine cools to room temperature cover the whole thing, weights and all, and put it in the fridge for at least three and preferably five or six days before serving to allow the flavors to develop.

Serve with a wine that has lots of tannins and not too much fruit.  And you could always serve chocolate cake for dessert, if you happen to have any left over.

*Based on a recipe by Pascale Mosnier that appeared in the magazine Cuisine et Vin

Waiting For Spring

February 22, 2009

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Le printemps arrive. Reveling in the coming season, Beppo stays close to the flowering mimosa, reminding himself of the joys of lengthening days spent lazing in the sun,  or hunting for spring mice, fresh from their winter’s naps.

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The garden bravely sends forth its first scouts.  Today they’re being chilled by the mistral, but probably tomorrow they’ll be gazing into the sun.  It’s that season of unpredictability.  It’s the season for poule au pot.

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Before I lived in France I never thought much about poule au pot.  Chicken simmered in broth with vegetables sounded pretty innocuous, bland, unappetizing.  And I certainly never thought about pre-spring as chicken-dying season.  But the tasty and terrible truth is this: older hens, no longer laying, become poule au pot at this time of year, making room in the hen houses for their younger and more fecund sisters, the very spring chickens with whom so many of us have been unfavorably compared as we age.

To make poule au pot you must first make an exquisite broth.  That’s the saving grace, the redeeming element that banishes blandness and inspires quiet humming at the dinner table.  Because I use Paula Wolfert’s recipe from The Cooking of Southwest France, and so should you if at all possible, I make my broth the day before the dinner.  Here four chicken carcasses snuggle on top of a heap of veal bones, warming slowly to their task,

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and waiting to welcome their aromatic companions in the hot tub.

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The resulting broth can stand on its own, literally and figuratively.  If all you need a delicious broth, this is the one.  If you have a chicken and someone to invite for dinner, so much the better.

The recipe is long, and I can’t give it to you here.  Really, just get the book.  But in general you’ll make a stuffing of jambon de Bayonne or prosciutto mixed with chicken livers, fill your past-spring chicken and sew her up tight, and slip her into the beautifully fragrant clear broth.  As she cooks you’ll steam vegetables and make an herb mayonnaise, and pour a glass of wine for your guests, because poule au pot is a dish meant to be shared.

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It won’t win any beauty contests, unless perhaps the award for Miss Conviviality.  Since it’s a dish that every grandma made, and everyone has warm memories of days spent sniffing the pot simmering on the back of the stove, the stories start to flow as the dish is shared and people eat more than they thought they could.  Because after all, it’s a great way to get one’s five daily servings of vegetables, all in one plate, sweetened by memory.

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And then, speaking of memories, the next day you can remember it all again and make an incredibly savoury soup with the leftovers.  Take the broth, now further enriched by the long simmering of your stuffed chicken, and dice into it all of the left over vegetables, chicken scraps, and stuffing bits.

Take it from me, no spring chicken myself, those older still ladies have a lot to offer.

Valentine Camarguais

February 20, 2009

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The Camargue is not all pink flamingos, black bulls, and white horses.  Those are there too, and we’ll talk about them in a day or so, but for now, let’s nestle into another Camargue, the part that’s made of old walls

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an even older staircase

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an inviting hallway

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and a welcoming bed.

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I leave the rest to your imagination, may it flower like love, an old, inviting, and welcoming love.  Forget all that young love, new love hype.  If you have a love that’s stood the test of time, aged to silver, burnished to gold, hold on tight.

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My Opening Farewell

February 16, 2009

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It’s coming.  The moment we’ve wondered about, dreaded, longed for, avoided, embraced: the moment we leave France.  Every day recently we’ve asked ourselves whether today will be the day we decide, and every day the answer has been no, let’s do anything but make that final call.  Let’s do crossword puzzles, take a trip, do the recycling, go out to lunch, learn how to use the gramatically gorgeous passé simple, buy something heavy and impractical to ship, you get the picture.  Do anything but decide whether to go or stay.

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And so I’ve been leaving you, dear friends of French Letters, a bit high and dry, while we ourselves have been à la dérive, drifting aimlessly, unable to commit, even to ourselves, to casting off yet again for another shore.  We love our life here and hate to leave it, but we’ve come to see that we have to get out from under its spell in order to understand where our future really lies.  And if you’ve been reading since the beginning of this adventure you’ll remember that once we had another life that we could barely bear to leave.  We don’t know if it’s still there, but we need to go and find out.

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So “come, friend who’s been with me on this long journey, let your horse rest a while, while you drink a few drops of wine without letting yourself become drunk.”  That will be my motto for the next two months, as we collect ourselves, our cats, our multitudinous memories and much-multiplied bunch of belongings, and get ready to head westward.

We’ll still travel France’s addictively lush paths together for a while, we’ll drink and eat the best of the season and toast our friendships, but our horses will be taking it easy, gathering strength for the journey ahead, and we won’t permit ourselves to become too intoxicated with what we see in the meanwhile.  Because that’s how we got where we are today, having drunk deeply of the oh so sweet vie française, and now it’s time to pause, emerge, and breathe the air of change once again. 

I hate goodbyes, and it’s not time for them yet.  But goodbye is in the air, along with the last winds of winter.  Spring will be here soon, the season of change, and spring is no time for regret.  As usual, Jackson Browne said it best:

“There’s a train every day, leaving either way
There’s a world, you know
You’ve got a ways to go
And I’ll soon believe it’s just as well
This is my opening farewell.”

A Chicken In Every Pot

February 8, 2009

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Or if not a chicken, a coq, a pintade, a duck, or a pigeon. 

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That’s your reward if you find your way, as we did today, to La Bruyerette’ s farm kitchen restaurant, hidden in a tiny hamlet deep in the countryside.

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All they serve is poultry, and all the poultry they serve is raised right there, within clucking distance of your table.  Although one can walk down and visit the birds, I advise doing so after you finish your meal.  For one thing, you’ll need the exercise.  For another, well, that duck may be somebody’s mother.

Today,  for a Sunday lunch, the small place was packed with cheerful diners, and we felt lucky to be there.  We loved it before we even tasted a bite, and I said so to our server, telling her that it was our first time there.  “Oh, but you’ll be back,” she said.  “Just wait until you try the food.”  And she was so right.  The menu is limited, ever changing, and carefully chosen.

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We both started with the salad, thinking it would be the lighter choice, although I was sorely tempted by the endives with Roquefort, one of the best flavor combinations I know of. 

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One of the things about French life that initially took me by surprise was the fact that when you buy a chicken, or any fowl, you usually don’t get the giblets.  The bird is clean as a whistle inside, and now we understand why.  The gizzards are a prized ingredient for salad toppings, and in this case we got a heap of livers as well, although they often find their way into paté.  The salad could have easily been a meal in itself, and we didn’t want to leave a bite, but seeing the dishes being whisked to tables near us inspired a modicum of caution and a certain amount of leftovers.

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Shel’s quenelles, floating in a rich and deeply mushroomy sauce, were a knockout.  I restrained myself from diving into his plate, but only with the greatest difficulty, out of a limited sense of propriety and a real fear that he’d stab me with his fork, defending his excellent choice.  You used not to be able to get him to touch a mushroom, but he is so over that now, and proved it again today, with gusto.

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My capon, in a sauce lightly flavored with hazelnut and truffle, was delicious too, and I especially appreciated the side dishes.   I think this is the first time I’ve been served a pile of whole grains in France, and it was funny to think of it as what it very much resembled: chicken feed.  The leeks were luscious too, and you can make them at home.  Just sliver some leeks, sauté them gently in butter until they’re melting, and add a little splash of cream.

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In a last-ditch attempt at lightness, we bypassed the tarte tatin, the moelleux au chocolat, the roll-your-own crèpe buffet, and both chose this frozen nougat, which comes in many incarnations, seemingly all wonderful.

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So the next time you’re traipsing through the profondest of la France profonde, in the exact middle of nowhere, and in no particular hurry, if you’ve got a yen for a meal that came straight from the coop to your table, close enough to walk, in fact, even if you have very short legs and webbed feet, try to land yourself a table here.  You’ll find a welcome as warm and cozy as a feather bed, you’ll eat a meal that’s perfectly suited to a day in the country, and if quenelles are on the menu, don’t even think about getting anything else.

Except maybe, as I did, you might ask for a little something to cook at home later.  Actually, they’ll be keeping my chicken alive and well for me until we get back from our Valentine’s trip to Genoa, but normally you can leave with a fresh bird of your very own.  Minus the giblets.

Life Suddenly Unlocked

February 4, 2009

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A blue pen was the key, a blue pen that inexplicably says HiFi on it in silver letters, that was the key that opened a door that had been closed to me since we arrived in France.

In English I think of myself as a writer, because  I want to write and so I do, like I want to breathe, that easily.  But writing in French has always been a painful process of sorting through my available vocabulary, verifying the conjugations, getting the right sequence of tenses, checking the spelling, and then, if after all that I have the least desire to continue, figuring out what to say.  Oh yes, and at the end of my struggles, handing over my scruffy effort to someone who has a red pen and the mandate to use it.

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In English I never seem to run out of things to say.  As long as I keep my life full of color and motion, my fingers dance their way through putting it all into words.  I never have to think about whether I actually know how to say what’s on my mind, or wonder whether the average twelve year old might correct my grammar.  It’s something that, I hesitate to admit, I actually take for granted.  But such luxury has never been granted me outside the broad confines of my native tongue.  Until last week, when for two shining hours I found that same freedom writing in French. 

This happened because, in an excess of courageous folly, I signed myself up for a writing workshop.  In this weekly class, everyone writes for twenty minutes on an assigned topic, then reads aloud what she’s written and accepts compliments and critiques.  It’s a lot like what I’ve done for years in my writing group in the US, except, in French.  No other non-native French speakers were in the group.  As you can imagine, I was mildly panicked in advance.  I warned the group and the instructor that I probably wouldn’t be up to snuff, that they could kick me out of the class if need be.  But all that patati and patata was swept aside, the topic was assigned, the blue pen jumped into my hand, and I began.

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And then, like magic before my eyes, from the humblest roots something beautiful flowered.  Because we had only twenty minutes to write we had no time to think, no time to correct ourselves, no time to censor or doubt or hesitate or block or any of the other things writers might do when they’re not actually writing.  It was really just a process of getting it out and onto the page as fast as possible, and for some reason under that pressure my fingers didn’t care what language they were using.  The assignment was to include and evoke as much emotion as possible while writing about memories, and emotion speaks no particular language, although it’s a language I understand and feel comfortable using.

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Because what’s simplest and closest to home is often the safest, I wrote about what I know best: my marriage.  Because I’m American, I was very open about hastily selected intimate details, in a way that a French writer might not permit herself to be.  Later, when I read my work out loud to the group, I saw that it had touched my listeners in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible, given my language skills.  And also because I’m American, I used the phrase “for better and for worse” in my text, which might well have been applied to my writing, but which led to my discovery that actually in French you say “for worse and for better.” 

And thus I learned how our American optimism is expressed even in the most unexpected ways and in faraway places.  And that optimism has spread into my very fingers.  Because I dared to enroll, to write, to read aloud the details I’d committed to paper, in my HiFi way, and it was good, what I wrote, even though it wasn’t perfect.  And I can’t wait to do it again.  And because in this, my one and only life, better mostly comes before worse, and freedom before fear, even when sickness comes before health.

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Thus it was that, with the help of a bolt of blue and silver, I began a new life in letters.  French letters.

Aujourd’hui Tous Unis!

February 1, 2009

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Do you like licorice?  Ever buy any from Haribo?  You probably won’t find any that was made on January 29, at least not in France.  Haribo workers were out in the streets, along with between 1,000,000 and 2,500,000 million other French people, depending on whose numbers you trust, to voice their unhappiness with the state of the world in general and life in France in particular.

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But, as I’ve heard some people ask, “what have they got to protest about?  Isn’t protesting against a worldwide economic crisis kind of like protesting against bad weather?”  As this sign points out, it’s a bit of everything, le ras le bol général, the fed-up-to-hereness that’s pervasive in France these days.    Erosion of legal rights, deterioration of the justly famed health care system, huge cuts in education, retirees struggling to make ends meet, the reduction of many full-time jobs to part-time, an enormous surge in the number of layoffs and people living on unemployment, virtually the whole fabric of French society is seen by a huge number of French citizens as being under attack.  And, as a matter of national character,  when people here feel threatened, they head for the streets.

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As my friend Kathy emailed me “France can strike like nowhere on Earth.  They really have it down.”  There’s even an expression for it, “déscendre dans la rue.”  To get down into the street and show your face and join your voice to those of your friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

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I think probably it’s a part of the basic French blood type, harking all the way back to the Revolution.  Lots of children were in the streets, in part because the teachers were striking, as well as hospital workers, most other public sector workers and many private sector employees,  retired people, and the unemployed.  But instead of running wild, freed from a day of school, I saw a lot of children talking seriously with their parents about what was happening, the next generation of strikers in the making.

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High school kids have been out on strike a lot this year already, protesting the massive cuts planned  in teacher positions and the loss of special support for the kids that need it most in order to graduate.

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One thing that made this day really special was the fact that everyone agreed to protest together,  members of pretty much every political party except Sarkozy’s own, all striking in solidarity to protest what they see as a continuing erosion of the basic and highly valued French way of life.  Of course, for an American, even seeing people standing nonchalantly under a Communist Party banner is an interesting experience, but here, where people may freely belong to any party they wish, and there are almost too many parties to count, the PCF was just one small part of a much larger movement. 

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Even people who couldn’t walk in the parade were out to show their support.  Many of the marchers waved to this lady, and she waved back enthusiastically, an elderly woman in her bathrobe, a part of the life of the town that I know nothing about.  Because I was, of course, there only as a journalist/blogger.  I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t under any banner, didn’t have any demands.  I stayed a little apart, using my camera to explain my presence.

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But there was a time when the road narrowed, when there was no choice but to join in the march or leave it behind.  I haven’t been “in the streets” since the Vietnam war protests, which is longer ago than I care to admit.  It was a special moment, and I found it very moving, to walk down an ancient street  with people who really care about the state of the modern world.

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Along the way I collected a pocket full of flyers from everyone that was handing them out, to bring to my French teacher so we could discuss the details of what each group was asking for.  And in the process, two really important questions were put right in my face. 

When I asked the PCF lady for a flyer I mentioned that since we don’t have a communist party in the US it was very interesting to me to see what they proposed as a solution to the crisis.  She asked me “how is it possible that in the largest democracy in the world one doesn’t have the right to belong to and vote for whatever party one chooses?” 

And later, when Shel read through the flyers, he pointed out that, contrary to what one would expect in the US, there was not one single call for a reduction in taxes.  All people wanted, people from every walk of life, people of every political persuasion, was to have the French way of life, liberté, égalité, et fraternité, the good life for one and all, restored and assured.  Services and social protections for all, taxes be damned, party membership be damned, just let’s have a society that meets all of our needs.  That’s what January 29 was all about.   “Aujourd’hui tous unis” was the chant of the day.  Today we’re all united.  And even on such a day, although we never expected it, our garbage was picked up, and the mail was delivered.

Think about it.