31 December, 2009

Cheese Puffs gone French.

I'm thinking I cannot the only one to have both well-loved guests on the way to cheer the new year in, and a debilitating cold/flu whatever firmly lodged in the area of my sinuses, throat, nose, etc. It had to happen sometime, but why now? No, really not so good timing, given that my cooking drive has taken a bit of a nosedive as a result of my continuous coughing and hacking. And what am I doing writing at 12:15 in the morning, the intelligent reader asks. Waiting for the (imported) Nyquil to kick in, replies the soon-to-be hostess. Duh.
I had decided on an easy crowd-pleaser (the cheese puffs, or gougères, in the title), but discovered my pastry bag is AWOL. In my house, if you can't find something, there is a very good chance it is In Storage. Problem is, Storage is in a different country. So if you do have your pastry bag (or can track one down), but lack ideas for something delicious and easy to make for New Year's Eve (or any other pretext), then by all means, take over where I have had to leave off.

Gougères are delicious finger food from the region of Burgundy, the kind of savory pastry snack that makes people forget their manners and all but two-fist the crispy little treats while hulking protectively over the serving tray. These hollow little balls go excellently with a glass of Champagne. And as long as you follow the instructions carefully, they're quite easy to make.

There are excellent, simple recipes online. I like that FXcuisine features clear, step-by-step photos (the photo above is from their recipe), while Food and Wine offers Alain Ducasse's version. Who better to stump for this French delicacy? I still think the standard Gruyère cheese makes for the tastiest gougères, but at Baking Obsession, Vera has chosen a less conventional path. It does look delicious. Let me know if you try it out.

In the meantime, I will stumble to bed now. The Nyquil has kicked in, and the rasping, consumptive-sounding cough is being replaced by jaw-breaking yawns and slightly blurred vision. (Hey, it's party central already.)

Thank you for reading this far; Happy New Year to you, with good cheer--and good health.

29 December, 2009

Is it too late to share this with you?

45,000 christmas lights, computer-controlled and powered by wind. American ingenuity goes festive.

28 December, 2009

The fatted liver.

One of my (many and manifold) weaknesses is an everlasting willingness to be seduced by foie gras. And in France, this is definitely the season for either duck or goose foie gras. I am lucky enough to know someone who makes his own foie gras from geese and ducks raised on kitchen peelings and whatever they find in his field. But supermarkets across France are stocked with this delicacy (in a range of diferent levels of quality and price). Beyond France, foie gras is considered a food of the elite as it is after all a luxury dish, but within France, at Christmas and New Year, it is a fixed, nearly standard feature on the table of the average Joe.

Outside of France, there has been momentum, off and on, to ban foie gras. Indeed, it is banned in some countries altogether, such as Turkey and Israel. You may perhaps remember the two year ban in Chicago. As Alex Koppelman of Salon.com rather acerbically writes:

It's undoubtedly true that some farms use inhumane methods, like caging the birds in tiny, individual cages that cause them pain and distress, but when foie gras is produced the right way (the way Hudson Valley does it, for instance) it's simply not torture. It's just a process through which humans take advantage of the duck's natural biology, which is very well suited to the kind of force-feeding involved in producing these fatty livers.
If you oppose foie gras, even if the only thing you've ever done about it is to make a dinner companion feel guilty, and you still eat conventionally raised meat, you're a raging hypocrite and a silly one at that. The eggs you ate for breakfast, the cheese that came on top, and the bacon on the side, all of it is produced using methods more torturous than the ones employed on a good foie gras farm. Animals on a typical farm these days are confined in spaces so small they can't turn around, much less do any of the things they'd normally do in nature. And in order to keep them at least somewhat healthy and functional despite those conditions, which tend to make them stressed and unhappy, their bodies are altered to keep them from harming themselves and their fellow animals -- chickens have their beaks trimmed, pigs and cows get their tails docked.
If you would like to find out more about this, you might be interested in the new Mark Caro book "TheFoie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight." (Mark Caro is the columnist whose article resulted in the Chicago ban).

Enough of the world, back to the kitchen. If you know and appreciate the stuff, and can get your hands on some nice foie gras, I urge you to try this terrine, which I adapted from an Elle à Table recipe I scrounged up the day before a big dinner. Here's why: it is made well in advance, is so easy and relatively fast to prepare, looks impressive and tastes even better. The fruit harmonizes (yes, harmonizes!) with the foie gras to perfection. The only disadvantage I can think of, assuming you like foie gras and have no allergy to nuts, is that it's never inexpensive. The only special equipment you'll need is a terrine dish (about 12 cm in length should do); this is a glazed baking dish with straight sides.

Terrine de Foie Gras aux Fruits Secs/Fruit-Studded Foie Gras Terrine

Serves six.

250 g foie gras mi-cuit (i.e. not raw, but rather ready to serve)
4 dried figs, (the hard stem bit cut and discarded) chopped
1 tablespoon cranberries (or raisins)
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts (or pistachios)
20 g butter
2 tablespoons Banyuls, sherry or Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons white Port, or Pineau de Charentes, or a dessert wine such as Sauternes
a pinch or two of Cayenne pepper
fresh ground pepper and salt to taste

Place a large piece of plastic wrap into the terrine dish; this will allow you to easily remove the terrine for slicing later. Break or cut the foie gras roughly into pieces, place in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat, add the chopped dried fruit and nuts and stir. Add the vinegar, stir again, then add the Port and cayenne pepper. The kitchen will suddenly reek of vinegar fumes. Don't despair. Grind pepper into the pan and add a light sprinkle of salt.

Once the vinegar and Port have evaporated leaving only the butter, remove the pan from the heat. This should take about five minutes. Allow the fruit mixture to cool a bit before adding it to the foie gras in the mixing bowl. Gently mix the two, then pile the combination into the terrine dish, pressing down to push out any air pockets underneath. Completely cover the top with the plastic wrap and allow to rest, refrigerated, for at least one night.

When ready to serve, pull the ends of the plastic wrap gently to dislodge then remove the terrine from its dish. Slice with a knife that has been previously warmed in hot water. Serve with toasted French bread slices and a spoonful of thick, vanillla-scented fig conserves.

23 December, 2009

A house in the mist.

At fourteen or fifteen, unable to sleep at two in the morning, I crept into the family den (lined with genuine laminated wood) and switched on the television, promptly losing myself in the 1954 film adaptation of the Broadway musical Brigadoon.
For a couple of days now, I have been Cyd Charisse, in spirit if nothing else. Okay, I'm speaking fairly loosely here. Gene Kelly was AWOL, there was only this house instead of a musically gifted village, and not a kilt to be found, but it hardly seemed possible for the day to go by any slower, nor fog to be any denser. The fog was palpable, it was the cat that padded up and wrapped itself around the farmhouse (remember that poem?). Only this cat never left.
Nearly simultaneously, there have been hundreds of passengers stuck on a Eurostar train under the English Channel and thousands of stranded would-be passengers in London and Paris, almost all of whom deeply desired to go home for the holidays. I was also stuck--but already at home. Granted, there are worse things (such as the aforementioned train mess) but this house has been completely cut off from anything resembling civilization, or even the landscape familiar to me, with no visibility past one or two meters.

The only weapon I chose to wield against the resulting (mild) case of cabin fever was to read about food. Then to cook. A lot. There are now four types of Christmas cookies (including a new one: lemon-glazed persimmon bars); my go-to rosemary and garlic marinade for a leg of lamb; candied clementines, incandescent and nearly translucent; the best-ever crèmes renversées (what the world outside of France calls a crème caramel); an ivory-hued cream of parsnip soup; a winter salad sprinkled generously with crumbled chestnuts and my neighbor's very fresh goat cheese. My waistline will bear the brunt of this isolation, but boy the house smells divine. No doubt Cyd would shake her perfectly coiffed, chiseled head at the sight of my kitchen...

I do hope we'll get lucky with a bit of milder weather tomorrow, as I really must rejoin civilization in last-minute gift-hunting at the local marchés de noel . It is, after all, nearly Christmas. Dear reader, I wish you and yours warm fingers and toes, a kitchen full of good smells (and someone to help clean up), a big glass with tiny bubbles, and an enduring sense of peace. Oh, and not too much fog.

19 December, 2009

Staying warm, part deux.

There is always debris involved in the act of creation, and wine-making is no exception. White wine grapes are generally crushed and pressed to extract the liquid, leaving behind a greenish-brownish mass of skin, seeds and pulp. Red wine grapes are usually crushed and the liquid allowed to drain freely, leaving behind a blackish mess of solids, which also include traces of yeast cells and alcohol.
Wine-makers are thus left with substantive solids, which English cider makers long ago dubbed pomace. With this, they make pomace brandy, or what the Italians call grappa and the French call Marc. (In the photo, the three bottles on the left contain grappa, including the more well-known Alexander at the very end.) Parenthetically, if you want to say the 'm' word out loud and impress others by sounding French-ish, drop that 'c' at the end.

Wine-makers engage in their own sort of recycling in a number of ways. They use the leftovers--including the dregs, or sediment found in the bottom of the fermentation vessel. From this, they extract what is sold in powder form as cream of tartar (used to stabilize and add volume to beaten egg whites, to improve the texture of baked goods, for polishing brass and copper, and removing tough stains from your clothes and bathtub...). They also spread the dregs in the vineyard, returning nitrogen and other organic nutrients to the soil. But most notably--at least in my mind--they make that clear, robust brandy. Because what a pity to see any bit of what has so carefully been grown go to waste, right?So the Marc is simply a very earthy response to the challenge of making something out of that "nothing", and what resulted was a kind of moonshine that served as a fairly spine-straightening kick in the pants, a buffer against harsh winters and intensive labor.

The Marc has acquired some finesse and distanced itself to a degree from its fiery, peasant origins. Most Marc in France comes from either the region of Champagne (much of which is distilled in steam heated vats at Jean Goyard, after which the highly aromatic Marc is aged by individual champagne houses) or Burgundy. There are a variety of different stills and distillation processes found across the country, but Burgundian Marcs are oak-aged, and tend to be quite rich--or ample. Alsace is, to a smaller degree, also known for its Marcs (far right in the photo), as is the Jura (just left of the center bottle). There is no real difference between Marc and grappa, other than country of origin. Since Nonino's hugely marketed, transformative shift toward single varietal grappas in the early 70s, however, grappa has gone very high end, with gorgeous packaging that often costs more than the beverage within. Grappa has gained a certain cachet, especially in the US, its biggest export market, a chicness that Marc still lacks.

Marc is drunk as a digestif, taken after dinner to ease digestion, perhaps with an espresso or a good cigar for the aficionados. It is not, however, for the faint of heart. With an alcohol content ranging from 40% to 45%, conservative sipping, with extended pauses for conversation, is key to remaining upright. My favorite (so far) is the beautiful, supple vanilla and spice-scented Marc de Banyuls that I brought back from the marvelously rough-hewn (French Catalan) Cote Vermeille. This one is made from Grenache noir, gris and Carignan grape pomace.

Wind up your courage, give this brandy a try. As for me, my companionable little glass is now empty, which brings this entry to a close.

(With thanks to Charlene, for asking about it.)

14 December, 2009

Staying warm.

It has shifted from this......and this... ..to these. This all happened in a matter of moments, or so it seems. Spoiled with an endlessly balmy November, we rolled blithely into blackest December. Boy, do I ever resent the guy who came up with Daylight Savings Time for robbing me of those last rays of light. All the radiators have been flicked up a notch to accomodate the drop in temperature. Will we have a white Christmas? It would be atypical for the Languedoc these past few winters. But stock up anyway on the few aromatic ingredients for vin chaud, or mulled wine. For when you're snowed in, or when you just want to pretend that you are.

Vin Chaud (French Mulled Wine)

Serves one to four people, depending on the degree of thirst.

one bottle of Beaujolais red wine
zest of 2 oranges
zest of one lemon
4 cinnamon sticks
6 whole pods of cardamom, split open
6 whole cloves
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup of currant liqueur (Cassis de Dijon), or Cognac and 3 tablespoons of sugar

Combine the wine and all the spices in a saucepan, heat until simmering, and allow to bubble very slightly for about half an hour. Take at least three deep breaths of the gorgeous perfumes wafting through your house. Add the Cassis de Dijon, or sweetened Cognac, simmer for another five minutes, strain and serve.

Sip and dream of picture-postcard Christmas markets in the Alsace, where the snow lingers a bit longer.

09 December, 2009


Remember when you were little and first tried to reach the bottom of the pool, fighting the buoyancy of your own body and above all that mad desire to suck in air? In the countryside, without a television or a newspaper subscription, suddenly losing your internet connection can feel similar. Amazing how I can even imagine associating computer time to something as vital as breathing, but there you go. You get used to access, and hurry-it-up, both of which I have lacked for the past few days. This, while such interesting little moments were happening, between the (tidal) waves of holiday rush (visits, preparations for visits, more visits, trimming the tree, making wreaths, making merry). I guess the lead up to Christmas doesn't differ that much whether I live in Amsterdam, Washington, D.C., or the boonies of France. (It isn't really the boonies here, but it can feel like it when one is sans internet connection.)

I thought of you, dear reader, when I was driving past broad swathes of grapevines and noticing they'd finally shifted from pure autumn gold to the reddish brown, leafless haze of winter. But at that very same instant--I swear on a stack of Bibles taller than me--the title song of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! musical came on the radio:
...Flowers in the prairie where the june bugs zoom,
Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope.
Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain...

Enough to send a girl into some rather odd daydreams.
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