Archive for March 2009

Food, Inside And Out

March 31, 2009

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I opened a bag of fresh spring salad, tossed a heap on the plate, and turned my back.  Returning with vinegar in hand, I narrowly missed dousing this poor little guy, already insulted by having spent a night in the fridge.  He’d been in the food, and was now on the food, and in a certain sense he was food, an inside-out food like all of his kind.  But although salade à l’escargot might tempt some, I set him free in a rain-drenched bit of garden.

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Sometimes the secret insides of the food are what it’s all about.  If an egg were only the white I doubt that we’d eat it, but give us a running yolk and the ante ups considerably.  Of course, every egg we eat is a chicken that we won’t be serving; in addition to being delicious in its own right the egg’s also a pre-food, as it were.

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But while milk is a pre-food in the same way, I think we can all agree that a perfectly ripe Mont d’Or has a lot more to offer.  Unprepossessing on the outside, a bit smelly and tattered-looking, it opens into an impeccably creamy splendor.

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And speaking of creamy splendor, sometimes it’s the outside of the food that calls to us the loudest.  When a guest arrived the other night and offered us this beautifully wrapped mystery in a towel, as eager as we were for dessert I could scarcely bear to open it up.

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The lovely gateau Savoyard inside made up for the destruction of the clever packaging, but I did get a lesson in towel-tying so that I can replicate the pleasure myself the next time someone asks me to bring dessert.

Who said that beauty is only skin deep?

One Hour On Earth

March 29, 2009

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Last night, here in France, we both lost and gained an hour.  Lost because we finally passed to l’heure d’été, daylight savings time, an event that normally involves an hour of one’s life being lost until the autumn time change rolls around.  But in this case we also gained precious time by observing Earth Hour,  just us and a few million other people on the planet, apart and together, in the semi-darkness.  Gaining nothing tangible but a sense of hope for the future, and a feeling of holding hands around the world, which is gaining most of what’s worthwhile in life, when you think about it.

I’m not going to wade into the raging polemic on whether Earth Hour is just a lot of commie pinko enviro radicalist hyped encroachment of marketing into the hard cold reality of energy development and profit to the military industrial complex, or just a waste of good candles.  Nope, I’m not touching that for a nanosecond. 

What I do want to say is hats off to those folks who are in  Bonn today negotiating an international climate change treaty, a few of whom used to be my colleagues.  Hats off to those big countries that are making a serious commitment to change.  Hats off to those little countries that are speaking up for their right to have what the rest of us take for granted.  And a toast to those of you that were with us in darkness last night, expressing in the simplest possible way our collective hope for a planet that’s safe for our grandchildren.

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If we reduce electricity use and the lights go out and you can’t see your supper, will you still enjoy it?  But then, how easy is it to enjoy an Indian meal by candlelight, knowing that what’s on your plate would feed an Indian family of four, although they would have probably had to cook it over dried cow dung?

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If the glaciers melt and the pastures dry up, will there still be great French cheese?  If temperatures rise as predicted in Portugal, will you still be able to have a glass of Port with your dessert?

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If Mother Earth gives us the spanking we well and truly deserve, will we still feel like singing?

Bathing Suit Food

March 28, 2009

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No one will ever see me in a bathing suit, and for that we can all be profoundly grateful.  Nonetheless, at this time of year, even those of us who would rather be beamed up handcuffed and blindfolded to a star in a cold and hostile galaxy than be caught in a maillot de bain do tend to think of eating more lightly.  Celery, green apples,

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cauliflower and sardines, these fuel our springtime dreams of fitness and flattery, the eternal hope sprung manifestly onto our lunchtime plate.  Those of you that are actually suimsuit-suitable, and I’m sure you’re out there somewhere, will also appreciate these two recipes for their tangy contribution to the cause.

Here you have a celery salad, a sardine sandwich.  You can eat them for health, you can eat them for beauty, you can eat them for fun.  You can serve them together or apart, to guests or just to your own dear self.  You’ll hardly spend a penny making them, you’ll scarcely make any dirty dishes.  At the end of the meal you’re certain to be proud of all that, but what you’ll really be is well fed.  And if you insist on putting on a bathing suit before you dine,  more power to you.  Although it is only March.  There’s still time.

Crunchy Green Springtime Salad*

2 large celery stalks, leaves included, diced fine
3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup pecans, broken up
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 T Dijon mustard – use mi-fort if you can get it
1 T honey
1 tsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
salt and pepper to taste

Place the celery, apples, parsley, and nuts in a salad bowl.  Whisk together the dressing ingredients and toss with the salad.  Season to taste. Voilà.

Earth and Sea Sandwich**

14 oz  fresh cauliflower florets
1 can sardines packed in olive oil
1 lime, zested then juiced
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup cream
1 T olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
small slices of crusty toasted bread

Cook the cauliflower in boiling, salted water until tender.  Drain.  Place the cauliflower in the food processor with the olive oil, half of the lime juice, the garlic, and half of the cream.  Whiz until it begins to smooth, then, with the machine running, slowly pour in the rest of the cream.  You may wish to use a little more or less cream, but be sure you obtain a texture that will be spreadable and not runny.  Season to taste.

Drain the sardines and shred them with a fork, stirring in the rest of the lime juice.

Spread the toasts with a layer of cauliflower cream, then spread with the sardine paste, then an additional dollop of cauliflower cream.  Sprinkle the top with bits of lime zest and some fleur de sel if you like.

*inspired by a long-ago recipe from Cooking Light
** based on this recipe

Windows On An Inner World

March 25, 2009

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I wish you could see me gazing out this most beautiful of windows, I wish I were there.  I promise that if this were my window I’d let you see me inside, having just tossed the stray bits of morning baguette to the ducks, shaking the crumbs from my apron, lingering a moment over one last bowl of café au lait.

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Then, perhaps, I’d hang my laundry out to dry in the sunny courtyard, those most private of garments in that semi-public place.  So French, that hide and seek of underwear: I agree to let you see it, you agree not to mention it.

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Later I’d go to visit my neighbor, very old now, just out of the hospital and no longer able to see that she’s shut the curtain out to dry in the sun as well.  That curtain, not as white as it used to be, the shutters no longer blue.  Or am I remembering wrong?

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Perhaps I’d invite her to lunch with me down by the water, where the windows are wide open and the curtains safely tied.  We’d hear the ducks, even if she couldn’t see them.  We’d talk about how the water is running high this year, about floods in years past.  We might not talk much about the future.

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Afterwards I’d walk home past the smallest balcony in town, only as wide as a single car garage, but still wide enough and sunny enough for two friends sharing an afternoon Pastis.  I’d walk slowly, hoping to be invited up, but no one would be home, or it would be too early for Pastis, or foreigners would have moved in recently.

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Coming home alone, I’d close my shutters against the prying eyes of the tourists’ cameras, and begin the slow drift toward the night.  I’d have a little salad of beets and walnuts, a cup of soup.  No duck. No company.

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Unimaginable as it is, the day will come when my shutters too will stand open day and night, and no one will be home.

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If you’re as much of a voyeur as I am, you might want to peep into some other French windows we’ve visited before, like the ones here, or here, or here.

Wine On The Line

March 22, 2009

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First the grape, then the winemaker’s magical touch, then the sound of the cork popping.  That was pretty much my whole train of pre-glass wine thought,  until recently.  But now I’ve taken wine tasting classes, been to a huge wine convention, acquired a modest wine vocabulary, spit out countless mouthfuls in the quest to understand what makes wine good, and even pruned a few vines.  What remained missing from my rudimentary education was a good bottling.  To remedy that, since it’s bottling season here and now, I begged an invitation from Jean-Marie Popelin at Château Haut-Musiel in the tiny town of Domazan

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and we set out on a bright and windy day to see how it’s done at a small winery without its own bottling facilities.

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Right off the bat, one illusion was shattered.  When I see mis en bouteille à la propriété on a label, I at least know the wine hasn’t been blended into an anonymous amalgam somewhere far from the vineyard of its origin.  That had given me a sort of cozy, homey image, perhaps of the winemaker deep in the cave, bottling by hand, or something of the sort.  It was fuzzy in my imagination, yet artisanal.  But no, not at all.

We arrived to see the mobile bottling plant, contained in a semi trailer,  installed in front of the cave.   This baby can turn out 3500 bottles an hour.

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Everything you need to wash and sterilize the bottles, fill them, add the cork and the capsule, and then label them, is contained inside.

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The bottling teams travel from one winery to another all through bottling season and are prepared for everything.  They even bring their own generator.

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Bottles come in on giant pallets

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and are placed by hand on the bottling line.  If all goes well, no one will touch the bottles after that until they pop out the other end of the trailer ready to be put in cartons.

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The first bottle of each run is filled and sampled, just to be sure.

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Once given the go-ahead, the line cranks up.  But in this case there were lots of fits and starts, because the bottling we watched was of a vin liquoreux, a sweet wine, and the smaller bottle size wasn’t perfectly matched to the requirements of the bottling line. 

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 There was a lot of fiddling around inside the trailer, and a lot of standing around and waiting outside, but since I didn’t hear any yelling or swearing I imagine that this must happen fairly often.

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Once the line is running smoothly, corks by the gazillion are stuffed into the waiting bottles before they’re labeled

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and placed in cartons.  A carton of six bottles is the norm in France; in fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen a case of a dozen, which is the common thing in the US.

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Before the bottles are tucked away in their boxes, every label is checked by hand, then the carton is placed

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on a roller belt where it slides down into the anxious hands of the waiting winemaker.  These are his babies, these bottles

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and they’re handled tenderly right up to the moment they go out into the world.

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“Wine is bottled poetry” said Robert Louis Stevenson, undoubtedly talking about wine in the glass.  But bottled wine is so much more than that.  It’s the journey from grape to glass that makes all the difference, and there’s no end of hard work and expertise needed along the way.  The poet’s craft, perhaps delightfully fueled by a glass of wine, seems an easy one by comparison. 

So let’s raise a glass to the guys in red jumpsuits driving those big semis all over the back roads of France.  If it weren’t for them, a lot of that poetry would be falling on deaf ears.

Sardine Song

March 19, 2009

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Growing up, I thought sardines were weird.  Something old guys ate with raw onions, washed down by that then-vile substance, beer.  Old guys from the old country.  I never imagined sardines as a modern miracle food, a fountain of youth.  I never imagined them as beautiful.

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I certainly never imagined them as objects of mass affection.  If anyone had dared to bring sardines for lunch I would have felt compelled to move away from the sandwich, relocating myself to some less pungent corner of the school cafeteria.  Sardines smelled too strong, and they had those icky little bones, which at the time I didn’t recognize as a great source of calcium.  I’d never heard of Omega-3.

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I didn’t like canned food, anyway.  And I’d never seen a fresh sardine, although I grew up on the Pacific coast where once they teemed.  I didn’t think about whose hands might have carefully placed those tiny fish so neatly in their can, packed them in tight, serré comme des sardines, as you say in French to mean something that’s super-crowded. 

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And I only started to think about sardine fishing when I lived on the Monterey Bay, where Cannery Row, now an infamous tourist trap, was once the heart of a thriving sardine fishery.  The sardines were all gone when I lived there, but now they’ve come back, as sardines are wont to do, about every 30 years.  Sardine time is here again.

When we came to France I discovered abundant and cheap fresh sardines, and promptly fell in love with them.   Recently, a reader asked plaintively, replying to my rhapsodic post Hooked On Sardines, if there weren’t something good to do with canned sardines.  And that’s when I realized that now I eat tons of canned sardines, because they’re absolutely delicious here.  In fact, sardines take up a considerable amount of my limited canned food space, sometimes edging out other more obvious staples like chocolate.

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Here’s my currently Most Favored Sardine Concoction.  It’s a concoction as opposed to a proper recipe, because it’s different every time I make it, and each time I think it’s the best ever.

Usually I make this as a sauce for pasta, although I’ve also been known to toss it with roasted cauliflower instead, or to put in over polenta.   You’ll have to decide that for yourself, or try all three.  So to get started, here’s what you do.

Buy a can of really good sardines, packed in olive oil.  Drain the olive oil into a frying pan and add a diced onion and 3-4 cloves of chopped garlic.  Let this sizzle lightly until barely golden, then add some diced piquillo peppers, if you can get them, or dice up half a red bell pepper if you can’t.    Toss in a big handful of capers, then add a can of good tomatoes.  I like to use canned cherry tomatoes, but any high quality canned tomato will do.  Stir well and add a tablespoon of double-concentrated tomato paste.  When that’s blended in, add your sardines and crush with a fork until they begin to disappear in to the sauce.  If you’re using cherry tomatoes, try to crush those as little as possible.  Add a nice splash of red wine, enough that the sauce takes on the consistency you prefer.  Allow to simmer for 5 minutes or so, add salt and pepper to taste, and if you like spicy stuff, add a dash or two of your favorite hot sauce.  And there you have it.

I’ve added Niçoise olives.  I’ve added chard.  I’ve made it without peppers, and I’ve even made it without tomatoes, although that was a desperation move in a moment of sardine craving that coincided with a brief and bleak interlude when chocolate had won the pantry space wars.

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Any way you make it, if you like sardines, you’re going to love this.  And if you love sardines, you owe it to us all to share your favorite recipe here, because after all, you can’t eat sardine pasta every single day. 

Well, I definitely could, but you probably wouldn’t, and arguably one no one should.  But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if you did.

C’est Très Cowboy

March 16, 2009

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This could be Montana, n’est-ce pas?  Or anywhere in the Dakotas, or Colorado, or even Australia.  Booted guys in jeans and hats, getting ready to ride the range on their trusty mounts, rope those steers and show ’em who’s boss.  Or show ’em who’s le chef in this case, since these are French cowboys, Camarguais cowboys to be precise, mounted on their famous white Camarguais horses, one of the oldest breeds in the world.

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They’re beautiful horses, starting out their lives grey and turning mostly white as they mature.

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This pretty baby is for sale, and I’ll always hope that she managed to convince this guy to take her home.  I know I wanted to.

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The bulls are also a distinct Camarguais breed, bred for their beauty and fighting spirit, and although some of them might end up in the ring,

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either in Spain or in France, or, as you can see here, running tamely through the streets of towns all over the south, many will become gardianne de taureau, a stew of red wine and bull meat. 

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 If you have some bull meat, or some really tough beef, you can try this recipe, since bull meat is a lot like regular beef from the butcher, only much tougher, as the bulls spend their days roaming freely and being chased by cowboys, and a few cowgirls.

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But although you do see some cowgirls in the Camargue, more often the Camarguais notion of feminine beauty is

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brighter, flashier, closer to Spain than to home on the range.

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The Camargue is also famed for its salt, the best of which is raked by hand in the very early morning.  You probably even have some at home, since a lot of it is exported outside of France.  It’s amazing that one small part of the country can contain such a variety of riches.

And then, like the glorious icing on an already special cake, there are the Camarguais flamingos.  But wait, where are the flamingos?  Everywhere, except wherever you are.  They’re always just out of reach, too far away for the camera, and for all but the best binoculars.  You can see lots of them, dotting the swamps and rice fields, but you can’t see them well.   So I’ll have to leave you to imagine them, as I do, like a pink cotton candy cloud on the horizon of the Camargue.

Will The Real Camargue Please Stand Up?

March 14, 2009

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Is this what you expect to see in the Camargue?

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Or it it more like this?

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Or even this?  The experienced test-takers among you will have checked All Of The Above, always a good strategy, and in this case you’ve hit the jackpot.

A study in contrasts, the Camargue is at once home to white horses, black bulls, pink flamingos, grey salt, and a black saint.  Oh yes, and the Bac du Sauvage.

So, to begin at the beginning,  there we were, driving lazily through a truly desolate area of dry scrubby grasses, salty swamps, and run down summer houses, having ignored Mandy, our GPS mistress, when she told us “faites demi-tour dès que possible.”  She said it three times, never losing her patience: turn around as soon as possible.  Shel ignored her, following his inner radar that told him we’d be able to find Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer somehow, nevermind what Mandy had to say about it.  But we were both amazed when Mandy said, for the first time in the several years we’ve traveled with her “prenez le car-ferry.”  Huh?  Did she say to take a car ferry?  Out here in the middle of a featureless salt-grass factory?  Mais oui.

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After a short wait by a narrow river, the Petit Rhône, as it turned out, a piece of the road detached itself from the bank opposite and began moving toward us, laden with five cars.  No one seemed alarmed, evidently all was as it should be.  And thus it was, completely by accident and against the best advice of our trusty GPS, that we learned of the tiny car ferry called the Bac du Sauvage.

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We were thrilled to drive aboard a bit of floating roadway, and in three minutes we were across the river and just outside the famous town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

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We knew we were well and truly in the Camargue when almost the first thing we saw as we drove into town was a merry-go-round with several rideable bulls.  But it wasn’t for the bulls that we’d come,

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This is Saint Sara, sometimes called Saint Sara the Black.  Normally I don’t go out of my way to visit saints, but Sara is special.  She’s the patron saint of the gypsies, and every year around 10,000 gypsies descend on Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to visit her and parade her through the streets of the town.  She’s lifesize, and we saw her getting hugs and kisses from visitors while we were there.  If her story interests you, you can read more about her, and the town’s two Saint Maries, here.

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Sara is housed in the underground crypt of a very ancient and lovely church.  Normally churches aren’t my favorite thing either, but this one has something about it that even a heathen like me can feel.  It was begun in the 9th century, on the site of a sanctuary built in the 6th century.  Places that old really speak to me, and since most of the ancient places I’ve visited have been related to the church, I try to keep an open mind about them, to hear the voices calling to me down the centuries. 

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Those old voices, they don’t speak English, or French, but I don’t care.  I listen anyway.

And now, so as not to break the spell by talking about cowboys in the same virtual breath as the saints and the ancients, tune in, as they used to say in my long ago youth, tomorrow.

Lapin, Moutarde, Panais, Miam

March 11, 2009

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When it comes right down to it, I don’t feel that I have permission to mess with such a time-honored recipe as lapin à la moutarde.  But recently I had some of the iconic rabbit in mustard sauce at a local café and thought, heresy though it seemed, that I could do better at home.

I got some gorgeous rabbit legs from the butcher, something I don’t do often enough, although I don’t know why not.  There’s no skin to mess with, no fat to speak of,  and it makes a lovely, presentable portion.  Oh right, now I remember.  It’s bland.  Farmed rabbit is sometimes said to “taste like chicken,” but in truth, chicken is a lot more flavorful.  What rabbit does really well is lend itself to saucery, melding beautifully with the flavors of your choice.  And one of the most classic sauces for French rabbit is based on mustard and cream, strong mustard and sweet cream to lighten the assault. 

If you ever studied French using the video series French In Action, as I once did, you might have learned about lapin à la moutarde when Tante Georgette tries to order some, only to learn that the restaurant is out of it.  That’s when she declares, to the general amazement of beginning French students, that mustard is going up her nose, despite the fact that there’s no mustard in sight.  Of course. the expression “la moutarde me monte au nez” doesn’t really mean that you actually have a snootful of mustard, but rather that you’re really losing your cool, something’s really bugging you.  And what was bugging me about the recipes I had for lapin à la moutarde was that none of them looked really mustardy.

I unabashedly adore mustard.  When I travel, mustard and honey are the two products that I like to bring back from foreign places.  I always have several kinds of mustard in the house, but I seldom have really strong mustard.  So, how to make my bunny hop down the mustard trail, using the milder mustards in my cupboard?  No dilution with cream, I decided first.  I’d pretend that this was an informed bit of culinary expertise, but in fact I didn’t have any cream in the house anyway.  And then, something to sweeten the dish a little, as the cream would have, but also soak up as much mustard as possible in the process.  What on earth would that be?

Oh yes, the forgotten vegetable!  In France there’s a class of vegetables called “les légumes oubliés,” those older vegetables that have fallen out of favor in modern times.  And for some reason, this includes the sweetly alluring panais, or parsnip, which is fairly common in the US.  But it’s so out of favor here that several French people to whom I’ve served it didn’t even recognize the word panais, leading me to take a quick trip to the vegetable drawer for a mid-course show and tell. 

So here you go, a really and truly super delicious recipe for lapin à la moutarde, my way.  And if you can’t get rabbit legs, feel free to use chicken thighs, bone in, skin off.  It won’t be exactly the  same, but I’m guessing that it will still be very good, and that your guests will say miam, miam, or yum yum, depending on their inclinations.

Abra’s Lapin à la Moutarde

4 rabbit legs
3/4 cup mustard – I used half Maille mi-fort and half whole grain
2 large parsnips
1 large sweet onion
4 large carrots
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup veal stock – I used fond du veau powder
salt and pepper

Salt and pepper your rabbit and coat thoroughly with the mustard.  Add even more mustard if you like.  Let the rabbit marinate while you prepare the vegetables.

Peel and slice the vegetables.  Steam the parsnip and carrot slices lightly until they just begin to get tender (you can do this in the microwave and it won’t hurt a thing), drain them thoroughly.  Spread the onion slices on the bottom of a baking dish.  Spread the carrots and parsnips over the onions and salt and pepper the vegetables.  Set the rabbit pieces on top of the vegetables, making sure that each piece is completely covered with mustard.

Place the dish in a 220°C/425°F oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes.  Mix the wine and veal stock together and after the 15 minutes have passed, pour them over the vegetables, being careful not to disturb the mustard coating on the rabbit.  Continue baking, basting once or twice,  for another 35-40 minutes, until the rabbit is crisp and deeply golden on top and the vegetables are tender and swimming in a mustardy sauce.  I served this over steamed potatoes, but it would also be miam with polenta.

A Green Food Mood

March 8, 2009

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It happens to me every spring.  I can’t control it, it’s a purely atavistic impulse.  At the first glimpse of spring bulbs pushing up through the still-cold ground, I start craving green food.  Any green food.  And it’s not like I don’t eat my vegetables all winter long, either.  But the impending spring sweeps me with fierce green cravings, and I’ve been perhaps exaggerating a little lately on the green food front.  Like this cilantro soup, nothing more than a jar of cooked white beans simmered and pureed with chicken broth and a huge bunch of cilantro.  Really good, and five minutes after I had the idea it was ready to eat.

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Or this salad of nothing more than a tangle of arugula, diced beets, and a dressing of a garlicky mayonnaise into which I blended a huge bouquet of watercress.  Now that was good enough to eat for breakfast, not that I actually did, but I have to admit that I thought about it.

Then there’s this wonderful dish, a green herb-stuffed rolled pork roast, which you should make as soon as possible.  Adapted from this recipe, it’s delicious  hot, served with

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 a nice heap of roasted vegetables and, of course, the season’s first new broccoli. 

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And as an added bonus, the leftovers are delicious cold on a sandwich with more of that garlic mayonnaise and a twist of piquillo pepper.  To tell the truth, the leftovers are also great cold, straight off the cutting board, nevermind the sandwich.

Here, see for yourself.

Herb-Stuffed Rolled Pork Loin

1 pork loin roast
1 bunch Italian parsley
1 bunch cilantro, about the same amount as the parsley
2 large handfuls of arugula leaves, if you have small hands, 3 handfuls
3 cloves garlic
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
salt and pepper

Spiral cut your roast, so that it lies in an open and flat rectangle about 1/2″ thick.  Season the roast with salt and pepper.  Preheat the oven to 210°C/400°F.

In the food processor, whirl the parsley, cilantro, arugula, olive oil, and garlic to a coarse paste.  Spread this paste all over the surface of the meat, then roll the roast up and tie it in several places with kitchen twine.

Cut the butter into small bits and place it in a roasting pan.  Place the roast on top of the butter, fat side up, salt and pepper the top of the roast, and add a little splash of water to the pan to keep the first juices from burning.

Place the roast in the oven for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 180°C/350°F, baste the roast, and continue cooking until the center of the roast reaches 60°C/140°F, basting occasionally.  Remove the roast from the oven and let it rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

If you don’t have a meat thermometer, go out and buy one.  You’ll be glad you did.   The timing of this roast really depends on how thick your roll is.  The original recipe calls for 1 hour at the higher temperature, but my roast was done after only 35 minutes.  And you definitely don’t want to overcook it, so trust me, using a thermometer is the only way to go.