Archive for December 2011

A Small Leap Forward

December 31, 2011

The Champagne is overflowing the fridge. The wild boar is simmering peacefully in the oven. The puree of cauliflower with creamed leeks is ready. The Brussels sprouts with toasted pecans are next on the list. The guests are bringing everything else, some are even bringing the dishes to serve their course on, in deference to the fact that we’re leaving France in just four days and haven’t even begun to pack. Every chair in the house, plus several from the garden, will be in use. Someone is planning games to be played while waiting for the stroke of midnight, someone else is bringing French noisemakers, without which one cannot celebrate the reveillon de Saint Sylvestre in a properly French way. I’ve heard that there may even be dancing. There are pink clouds in the evening sky and the omens are good.

We’ll be in 2012 before many of you, but I’m not going to give you any advance hints. You’ll have to discover for yourself what the new year has to offer. Every year I’m torn between thinking “oh, it’s just another day” and “wow, it might be a whole new life!” As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between. I’ll still be me, you’ll still be you. It’s what we make of it that we’ll remember a year from now. And like every year, we’ll say that we can’t believe how the year has flown by, only this time it will be more true than at any time in the past, since without a doubt time goes faster and faster with every passing year, even if Einstein didn’t see it that way.

My plan is to step boldly through that door into tomorrow, taking my own sweet time, and I hope yours is too. See you on the other side.

Being The Light

December 25, 2011

The darkest days of the year are behind us and today is a day to contemplate peace on earth. A day to remember to make your time on our sweet planet count, to be the light you want to see. From me to you: peace and joy in all you do.

Fear Of Cardoons

December 22, 2011

I’ve always thought that cardoons were an absolute waste of chlorophyll, not to mention growing space and market space. They look prehistoric, are a hassle to prepare, and up until now, never tasted like much of anything. Sure, you can read about their vaunted delicate artichoke heart-like flavor, but I’ve always thought that was a polite way to say bland, bland, bland. Unfazed, our friend Alice gave me a clump of cardoons the other day, and recited me her recipe for Cardes à la Provençale. It’s a typical Provençal dish at this time of year, and she spoke of anchovies, and garlic, and I found that tempting, but memories of previous bad experiences with the fibrous stalks made me, ulp, toss the stuff. Besides, I reasoned, you could eat cardboard with anchovy and garlic sauce and it would probably taste, if not exactly good, at least not too different than the cardoons themselves would.

Undaunted, Alice invited us over and prepared the dish herself, after extracting from me my sheepish admission that no, I hadn’t actually used the cardoons she gave me.

Ok, I admit it.  I was wrong, I was absolutely wrong. I remembered having to cook the dratted things for an hour and a half before they got tender. Alice instructed me to use only the tender, white hearts of the cardoon, not any of the green and mega-tough outer stalks. You do have to pull off the long strings, as you might with some over-age celery stalk, but that’s sort of fun, in a perverse way. And while I didn’t discover any sort of delicate artichoke flavor, because the anchovies and garlic pack a real wallop, and while the dish will never win any beauty contests, it is, in fact, pretty darn good, especially in a relatively small quantity as a starter. So get yourself a clump of cardoon, try this recipe, and imagine that you’re spending Christmas in Provence.

Alice’s Cardes à la Provençale

serves 3-4

1 large clump heart of cardoon
4 T white vinegar
8 anchovy fillets
5 cloves garlic
3 T olive oil
about 1 cup heavy cream, up to 1 1/2 cups

First, steel yourself. You need to separate and wash the stalks, because cardoon can harbor a lot of inner dirt. Next, de-string the stalks, enjoying yourself as much as you can in the process. Fill a large pot with water and add the vinegar. Cut across the stalks as if you were thickly slicing celery, halving lengthwise any really large stalks.

As you cut the cardoons, drop the pieces immediately into the vinegary water, to keep them from turning brown. When all the cardoon pieces are in the pot, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat a bit and boil gently for 20-30 minutes. You want the cardoons to be fork-tender, but still slightly firm, as they’re nicer to eat with a little bit of crunch. Drain the cardoons into a colander.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the anchovies, mashing them with a fork until they dissolve. Add the garlic and sauté until it turns lightly golden. Put the cardoons into the skillet and stir to combine. Now add the cream, starting with one cup. What you’re going to do is cook the whole mixture until the cream reduces and a thick creamy sauce covers the cardoons. In my skillet, which is large, I ended up using a cup and a half. Don’t be shy with the cream, it’s the ingredient that brings the whole thing together. When the cardoons are luxuriously coated, add lots of freshly ground black pepper. You probably won’t need to add any salt because the anchovies are pretty salty, but you may add more if you wish.

Serve all alone on a small plate as a first course with a good bread to mop up the last bits of sauce. And fear cardoons no more, this dish conquers all. While eating it, the word cardboard will never once cross your mind.

Miam! Miam!

December 15, 2011

I love the word miam, which corresponds to our word yum. It’s a kid’s word, but adults can say it when we’re tired of trying to find yet another synonym for delicious. And in this case, the Miam! in question was the name of a food salon in nearby Alès, where dozens of sorts of deliciousness were on display and for sale in advance of the holidays.

I confess that the first time we went to one of these salons I didn’t quite know what to do. There was an overwhelming profusion of food and drink, to be tasted and purchased, and I ended up buying almost nothing. But later I realized that this is how French people prepare for the holidays, by stocking up on lots of good things, like a case of this 2005 Champagne that was made by the fourth generation in the family business and found its way home with us because it is truly miam, and all of the other foods that make a holiday here special.

Miles of charcuterie,

including the tantalizing little fribbles and frabbles of fried duck that I love to warm up and scatter on salad,

and mountains of mushrooms, notably these cèpes, which we call porcini, and most especially the cèpes du chataignier, those that grow at the feet of chestnut trees and are incredibly aromatic.

On the sweet side there were jewel-like candied fruits,

an unimaginable selection of macarons,

fancy cakes,

and beautiful chocolates made with olive oil.

For before-dinner drinking there were guys selling cartagène, the local apéritif made from wine and grape juice,

for a main course you could buy the most beautifully decorated beef roast I’ve ever seen (too pretty to cook, I thought),

and for before-dessert nibbling, cheeses of every description.

Should anyone feel peckish at the sight of all that food, there was hope: escargot sandwiches,

freshly-made pizza,

the famously stretchy potato and cheese concoction called aligot,

and if you were a young baker who had been working hard all morning making tarte aux pommes, you could sit down to a nice glass of…..Coke. Yes, they hid the bottle under the table while I took their photo, but Coke it is in those glasses, proving that all in France is not foie gras and finesse. At a place like Miam! a lot of it is about people making things by hand, and selling to other people who want fingerprints on their food. And yes, it’s also about Coke-drinking teenagers who are in the midst of preparing themselves to become bakers, the true backbone of French society.

When we crack that Champagne we’ll raise a glass to those kids, and to all the people who spend their lives creating wonderful things for us to eat. Miam!

Colmar Highlights

December 6, 2011

On our last night in Colmar I stood on the little bridge outside our apartment and thought “I could get used to seeing this every day.”  Actually, I kind of wanted to live forever in our adorable little home in La Maison Bleue, which is a wonderful place to stay if you’re ever in Colmar.

We’d sit in the cozy kitchen and Shel would eat the little bread people called mannala, and the swans would get any leftover crumbs. Kind of a Hansel and Gretel dream, and very comforting.

We’d go out shopping for gingerbread

or pretty dishes and textiles, which are two really strong points of shopping in Alsace,

and we found plenty of Christmas gifts all within easy strolling distance of home. We also tried a few restaurants, and if you get a chance to have the jambonneau with choucroute at La Taverne, or the venison stew called civet de biche et cerf at Winstub Brenner, jump at it.

What we didn’t expect at all was that we’d have a chance to be on French television, but there, right outside the museum, they were about to film an hour-long introduction to Colmar with a live audience, and even though it was a toss-up (go to the museum, become a star on French TV, go to the museum…nah!” we happily settled ourselves onto the risers and indeed, when the show aired the next day, there we were, looking right at home.

However, it was just a short visit, and once we had bought as much cheese (that fabulously smelly Munster), wine (those ultra-delicious Alsatian whites), clothing (aforementioned hat and jacket) and gifts (now that would be telling) as we could reasonably carry back with us on the train, we had to head back down the south, laden like Santa but minus the reindeer, tired, and happy. Christmas markets will do that to you, all of that, if you let them.

Alsatian Eye Candy

December 1, 2011

I’ve gotten lots of requests for more pictures of Colmar, so here you have it, the beauty that is Colmar during Christmas Market.

There, wasn’t that worth a thousand words?