Archive for February 2011

Counting The Minutes

February 27, 2011

In just a few days we’ll see the venerable Pont du Gard, our dear friends, the town where we lived so happily for so long, our dear rented house where we spent some of the happiest days of our lives. In less than a week we’ll be repatriated to that life, just one year to the day after we left it. When we walked out that door we didn’t believe we’d ever be back, Shel’s health seemed so precarious that we couldn’t imagine a time when he would be able to return. And now here we are, almost ready to go.

I say “almost ready” in the loosest possible sense of the phrase, since we’re not packed at all.  In fact, we’re not going to pack until tomorrow, when Beppo and Zazou are spirited away to the luxury kitty hotel where they’ll be spending the next three months. Packing upsets them, and we already feel guilty enough about leaving them.  I know they’d rather be in France with us, especially Zazou, who might long for her native land. But it’s such a long and arduous journey for a cat, and to make them do that twice in three months seems cruel and unusual. So they’ll stay where they can be pampered, and we’ll go to where we can pamper ourselves, albeit catless.

We’re exercising a strict packing discipline too, just in case we have to get home in a hurry.  One suitcase each, that’s it. We’re allowed 50 lbs in that suitcase, and I’m assuming that the weather is going to be warm every day we’re there, because only summer clothes could possibly fit into that tiny weight limit. One sweater, that’s it for me, cross my fingers and hope for sun.

And speaking of crossing, I keep making lists, crossing things off, adding new things to do faster than I can cross out the old ones.  But I know that by Wednesday night when we give our suitcases that final zip, all will be well.  Moving from one country to another is predictable chaos, at first you think it can’t be managed, then you run around in circles for a little while trying not to shriek, then you’re sitting in an Air France plane sipping free Champagne.  Four more days.

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The Icing On The Cake

February 19, 2011

I made this cool little cake the other night, with its amateurish gold daubings and hand-painted chocolate salal leaves, and sure, I’ll tell you how you can make one too. But the real icing, the real cake, is not this. It’s the fact that after traversing a very hard year, we’re finally getting to go back to France for a few months!

As you might recall, almost exactly a year ago I posted this last love letter to France. On that sad day we left Uzès, which had come to feel like home to both of us, because there were no further treatments for Shel’s cancer to be had in France, and we just couldn’t give up trying to save his life. And so we returned to the States, and spent a year chasing a cure. We got nearer and farther, sailed up, crashed down, ran the gamut that is everyday life with cancer. Had radiation, met with Hospice, drank bitter Chinese medicine, tried a new drug, and lo and behold, one year later, we’re both still here.

We won’t always both be able to stay on this earth, because of course we can’t have our cake and eat it too. But we’re both here now, still together, and in a mood to celebrate that fact. After the year we’ve had, we think we deserve a good dose of la vie française, and we’re going to go get it. In less than two weeks we’ll be heading back to our old home, to our same house and garden, our dear friends, our French classes, our next door neighbors, all that sweet life that we’ve been missing. But before we go back to having a bakery right next door and never baking at home, let me tell you how to bake a mighty fine cake.

First you make some homemade ice cream, or some other project that will leave you with six stray egg whites. Then you bake this recipe for Pille’s Estonian egg white cake. She calls for a Bundt pan, but I used a heart, you can choose. When I pulled the cake warm from the oven and flipped it over to its tender side, I slathered it with guava jelly and let that melt in a bit.  Then I took a 9 oz box of Organic Sicilian Marzipan and rolled it out so that I could cut out a heart shape just the size of the cake, which I laid gently atop the jelly. I set the cake on a rack and poured a ganache made with Sharffenberger semisweet chocolate over it all. As it set up I painted the backs of some salal leaves with melted Valrhona, and popped them into the fridge to set. When all was ready, I topped the cake with the leaves and dabbed and painted some gold trim, made with gold lustre dust mixed with a little lemon extract.

And there you have the cake, and the icing, and the happiness and the sorrow and the hope for a new life, all in one. Enjoy it all while you have it, that’s the lesson we’ve learned.

Scrumptious Shishitos

February 12, 2011

Today I’m celebrating on three counts: I found some beautiful shishito peppers and stunning fresh water chestnuts in the market, I’m typing this with two hands, and I can (just barely) lift the Nikon again, so the quality of pictures here can improve. Other than that, I’ve been neglecting you while we tried to thrash out whether Shel’s health will permit us to return to France for a few months, as planned.  The answer is, we still aren’t sure, but we’re making a decision on Tuesday after we see Shel’s doctor, because if we do go, it’s in just a couple of weeks, and we’d really have to get cracking. Don’t you agree that all of that calls for a really good dinner?

If you’ve never had shishito peppers, try to find some right away, at the Asian grocery nearest you. Normally they’re grilled whole and sprinkled with salt, and just popped in the mouth, one, two, three, or as many as you can eat. Their particularity is that some are neutral, some are warm, and the odd one is hot, and I’ve heard that those thrill-seeking Japanese, probably the same ones who eat the poisonous fugu fish, like playing hot pepper roulette.  Anyone who eats jalapenos will not find even the hottest shishito to be incendiary, but the thrill of the chase will still be there.

So I had those peppers, and a pile of water chestnuts, and some juicy and inviting pork shoulder steak to play with. The result was this rather homely

but addictively appetizing stir fry that I recommend to you for a chilly evening when the thrill of the pepper chase will warm your spirit.

Shishito Stir Fry

12-16 shishito peppers
12-16 fresh water chestnuts
1 lb pork boneless shoulder steak
1 small sweet red pepper
4 T canola oil, divided use
2 T soy sauce
2 T Shaoxing wine
1 T fish sauce
2 tsp black sesame oil
1 T crispy fried garlic (Vietnamese or Chinese)
3 T peanuts, roughly chopped
salt

You must have all the ingredients ready in advance, as once you fire up your wok this dish comes together in about 5 minutes. Begin by mixing together, in a medium bowl, a little marinade of 2 T canola oil, the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, fish sauce, and sesame oil. Cut the pork into bite-sized pieces and toss them into the marinade, mixing to coat all the meat. Let this rest on the counter as you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Peel the water chestnuts and slice them across the equator, so that you get 4-5 round slices from each one. Let the slices sit in a bowl of cold water as you proceed. Cut the red pepper into short strips. Chop the peanuts.

Heat your wok and add 1 T canola oil.  Toss in the whole shishito peppers and cook until they soften and begin to char, adding the red pepper strips about halfway through the cooking. Sprinkle the peppers with salt and remove them from the wok, setting them aside.

Add the remaining T of canola oil to the wok and toss in the pork, with its marinade.  Stirring rapidly, cook the pork very briefly*, just 2 minutes or so. Add the peppers to the wok, and the drained water chestnuts, and toss in the crispy garlic and the peanuts.  Stir together to combine the flavors and serve immediately.

*Pork shoulder can be cooked for just a couple of minutes before it toughens.  Once that happens, you have to cook it for hours to get it tender again, so really, just a minute or two in the wok!

Pancakes à Go Go

February 1, 2011

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Tomorrow is one of the most fun French holidays, la Fête de la Chandeleur, which is a dream for pancake lovers of all persuasions. Here’s a look-back at how we celebrated it in 2008. And by the way, à go go is one of the cutest French slang expressions too, meaning have at it, all you can eat, non-stop fun. Goes perfectly with pancakes.

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Yesterday was La Fête de la Chandeleur here in France, a day when one’s mission in life is to make and eat crêpes.  Since I’m not one to ever turn down an invitation from a pancake, our house became a veritable pancake palace.  Luckily we had a guest with a birthday to celebrate (merci, Marie), which gave me an excuse to really have a good time in the kitchen.

First, we needed two kinds of crêpes, the sucré and the salé. The sweet and the salty, or savory.  The sweet crêpe, is the one we’re most accustomed to, light, made with wheat flour, scented with butter.  The traditional savory crêpe is the buckwheat crêpe from Bretagne called a galette de sarrasin, or galette de blé noir.  And to be really traditional, the recipe doesn’t include any wheat flour, which makes the crêpes a bit tricky to handle since buckwheat doesn’t contain gluten to hold the batter together.  So that’s why I started with a liter of batter, in case I ended up with too many crêpes de chat, the ones that aren’t nice enough to serve to anyone but the cat.  Although I have to admit that however French he’s become, Beppo shows no interest in crêpes, either salé or sucré.   Thanks Beppo, more for us.

The crêpes all made, the house smelling of butter, and our guest installed at the table, we started with a little amuse bouche (thanks, Lucy) of smoked salmon crêpes, façon sushi.

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After that, well, you’ll have to take my word for it, crêpe production being one of those things that’s practically impossible to photograph in the moment.  We had little packets of curried peas and crème fraîche wrapped in crêpes, in honor of our guest’s recent stay in India, and then the traditional Breton crêpes filled with ham and Gruyère.

Then for dessert I created a little buffet

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of sweet crêpes, with choices of , from the top left, Pierre Hermé’s sensational lemon cream, a whipped chocolate ganache, toasted pecans, a blueberry compote from the Pays Basque (merci, Noël), an aromatic Basquaise pastry cream (thanks, Paula), an apple and Calvados compote, and a bowl of sugar to go with the slices of lemon that we picked from our little lemon tree just before dessert.  The sun flooded the table, the cider flowed, the conversation was animated, and it was just one of those perfect slices of time where all was exactly as it ought to be.

And then for supper, instead of stockpiling a nice heap of crêpes for a rainy day as I’d planned, we ate all the leftovers.  Because really, when do we get to have pancakes twice in one day?  Drat, I’ll have to make more again soon.

In pursuit of the perfect pancake, look no further than the crêpe.  Filled with your favorites, it’s whatever you want it to be, and a crêpe buffet is a make it yourself affair that offers you a great reason to play with your food.  Thanks, la belle France, for inventing such a great holiday.