24 August, 2010

Plum Crazy.

Welcome to the house that summer built, where we live in thinnest cotton by day and sleep on the covers by night. Where we are steeped in the bedlam of high summer, the wild insect zing, the fuzzy hum of the bee expeditions, the clatter of bird dispute, and the occasional squawking soliloquy of the chicken run. The Russian sage remains, months on end, a very popular nectar gathering point.Then there is the visual circus, staring with the heliotrope, even more deeply purple in reality than in the photo below.The blooming pomegranate, with a thousand creamy, orange-striated petals for every flower, continues the show from its peak in July on into September. The crape myrtle is in full splendor too, just now.As if all that sound and technicolor weren't enough, there are the scents the flowers and fruit give off. And brother is there ever fruit.Some of us take refuge in the rediscovery of books. Others start sharpening the knives to better keep up with the abundance. A particular post-lunch success was succulent, candy-sweet white peaches and golden raspberries (from a neighbor) topped with a fromage blanc. The mild, very soft fresh cheese was barely sweetened with a homemade fruit butter; hello, seasonal divinity in a dish. Of course, this is less a recipe than a meeting of like-minded fruits...Simple as simple can be, like the best summer dishes. A more drastic approach was called for in the matter of the plums. Bumper crop is the operative term here. Conservatively, I'd estimate the juicy total greengage plum haul at about 75 kilos (from half a dozen trees, which we studiously ignore the rest of the year). I've been inviting everyone and all their potential and actual brethren to come pick their own. In half an hour, I picked the lift-with-your-knees thirteen kilos pictured below. Thank the stars above for my plum pitter. Thus far, I've set aside plum eau de vie, whipped up a seductively intense plum sorbet (its fruitiness underlined with a delicate touch of housemade ginger syrup), canned tart 'n' sweet plum jam, jam and more jam, as well as a creamy English-style plum butter, plum syrup and lavish pineapple-plum chutney, made using dried chunks of pineapple. Jars and more jars, to be handed out at Christmas-time, to bring back the dream that was summer. And of course for after-dinner delectation there are the thrown-together plum cobblers, crisps and rustic open-face tarts (the last made in a New York second using store-bought puff pastry, sliced fruit, a few slivers of butter and a scant tablespoon of sugar blended with thickening arrowroot or cornstarch). All well and delicious, but. There were and are still a lot more plums to be picked, both greengages/Reine Claudes and fragrant yellow Mirabelles--and some unidentified sauvage ones. The handy thing about chutney is that in addition to being a toothsome match to pork, lamb, game or poultry, it also works well as a meat glaze, or mixed with olive oil for an exuberant marinade--or even blended with mayonnaise to add zip to a cold cut sandwich. In short, it has a wider range of possibilities than jam, as delicious as plum preserves are.Rummaging in the cabinets of the (too-warm) kitchen while idly fantasizing about cooler climes, after breaking into a sweat (from the rummaging, you see) I came up with this recipe. There is no point in feigning modesty when it comes to good food; this chutney is, er, plum delicious. If you want something with bright colors and fresh flavors, look elsewhere for a relish recipe. This puppy cooks down to a unremarkable looking brown slurry flecked with mustard seed and translucent flakes of garlic (the photo above was taken just half an hour into the cooking). All the beauty is in the tasting: deeply flavorful and complex, tangy and sweet, with a touch of the mellowing dark maple under the heady shower of spices. (Woo-hoo, star anise!) And every now and then, the titillation of still slightly tart dried cranberries...This stuff makes meat sing. With a Quebecois accent.

O Canada! Chutney épicé (O Canada! Spicy Chutney)

Makes 6 medium-sized jars.

2 kgs fresh plums, pitted
4 onions, chopped
2 cups dried cranberries
8 large garlic cloves, peeled, any bitter green shoot removed, very thinly sliced
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 ½ cup sugar
½ cup maple syrup (an intense #3 Dark or Grade B, if possible)
2 tablespoons powdered ginger
4 teaspoons whole mustard seed
3 teaspoons hot paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground star anise (optional but nice)
½ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional but nice)
½ teaspoon ground galangal (optional but nice)

Other spice possibilities: a half teaspoon of ground cloves, ground allspice, ground mace...

Combine all the ingredients in the largest pot you can find. Bring the ingredients to a boil, then cook over medium heat for between an hour and an hour and a half, stirring periodically. If you don’t stir it every now and then, you may have some burnt bits on the bottom. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.* As the very liquid mixture heats up and begins to boil down, please be ready for hot splatters. The chutney will need to thicken considerably, and by the end, it should have a syrupy, nearly jammy look to it: the spoon should leave a slight trail behind it. I keep a screen cover on top, which I hold before me as a shield while stirring. About half an hour before the chutney is finished cooking, sterilize seven jars (always good to have an extra on hand, just in case) by boiling the fully immersed glass containers and their lids in another large pot of water for at least 20 minutes. Once the sauce looks ready, remove the jars and lids from the boiling water and place them upside-down on a clean dish towel. Fill the still-warm jars, one by one, with the hot chutney, sealing with the sterilized lid, and turning over gently. Allow the jars to cool upside-down overnight. The flavors will deepen and improve with time. Once opened, the chutney will need to be refrigerated,though it can keep for weeks.

* Alright, so I am speaking from experience. I went for a lightning shower, and found myself slowed down by the tactile pleasure of having actually cooled off. My advice? Ahem. Stay in relative proximity to the stovetop. If you do have some scorching going on due to unavoidable distraction, sigh deeply, lift the pot off the burner, pour the yet-to-be chutney into a mixing bowl, and scrub the heck out of the poor pot, before continuing with the cooking. You'll have to clean that pot anyway, and doing it sooner keeps the carbon from tainting your beautiful-on-the-inside sauce.

16 August, 2010

In which I scream for grown-up joe.

This may be the most pathetically inadequate set of photos ever, which is a real pity, as Arles is a sweet, very walkable, very old city. Yes, it can be quite touristy too, but with a bit of effort, you can escape the near-ubiquitous van Gogh postcards and kitschy bull-fighting paraphenalia. But back to the inadequacy of this photo sampling: after about, oh, the fifth shot (and twenty minutes into my visit), I ran out of camera juice. This may not seem earth-shattering--alright it isn't--but I was astonished. Crushed. An hour or so from home, and I didn't even have the foggiest notion of where the spare battery might possibly be. I thought of you, fervently, because it was a beautiful day, and I was in a beautiful, ancient space.
And I. Couldn't. Take. Photos. I did masochistically, compulsively take note of all the photos I would have taken (just so you realize, there were some real prizewinners)...until finally I shook myself out of it and got myself something to eat.

Arles has a lot of restaurants; you can easily lose count. Unfortunately, most appear rather mediocre at best. When you're only there for the day, you don't want to spoil your visit with poor camera planning AND a bad meal. I wandered in circles until I decided upon something charmingly off-kilter: a tiny restaurant that serves Provençal and Japanese food, in the form of salads, sandwiches and sushi. (Have you culinary purists lost all respect for me yet?)

But wait--one of the owners is actually, truly Japanese. And I didn't have any sushi anyway; in fact, we all chose sandwiches. By God, if these weren't the finest sandwiches I've had in a very long time. Simple as all get out, but with the perfect baguette (i.e. ideal ratio of crispy crust to soft, non-doughy interior) and well-chosen, high quality fillings. The baguettes were topped with finely chopped tomatoes sprinkled with fresh-ground cardamom and pepper and a judicious lashing of superb local olive oil (which the shop also sells). Never before has lunch at a randomly chosen restaurant been this degree of satisfying. We argued loudly over whose sandwich was the best. Run, don't walk: go pick your own favorite at Fadoli et Fadola, 46, rue des Arènes.
One of the Roman amphitheaters, nearly 2,000 years old and in beautiful condition, is now used for bull-fighting. The image above is just inside the main entrance. If stones could speak...
In fact, many of them do, with intriguing, scratched-in tags. En bref, Arles a un charme fou (basically, Arles has a crazy amount of charm), not least for the history buff, with its seemingly endless pile of gorgeous old buildings. For those of us overheated and recovering from our own small follies, however, there is this to come home to. Luscious, almost slushy, darkly, deeply caffeinated, with the slightest grownup edge of bitterness and a pronounced liqueur accent that elevate it beyond a regular sorbet and make this concoction damn near irresistible. Not to be shared with munchkins--especially when they beg.

Café hyper-glacé pour les grands (Frozen Coffee for Proper Adults)
Number of servings varies widely.

1 ½ cups fresh-brewed strong coffee, chilled
1 cup coffee liqueur, such as Kahluá
¾ cup condensed milk
¼ cup milk
½ teaspoon vanilla

Combine all the ingredients, pour into your ice cream maker and churn. That’s it.

11 August, 2010

Before the bulls.

It just seemed like the thing to do this past Sunday morning. We jumped into the Mini Cooper, drove for a couple of hours, and found ourselves in a somnolent, 2,700 year old city.A scant ten kilometers from the Mediterranean, Béziers has seen a lot of action through the ages, having been variously occupied by the Celts, the Romans (natch), the Visigoths, and the Moors. It became a Cathar stronghold, until it was definitively sacked by the Catholics in the Albigensian Crusade. Béziers' history marched on, and included the dramatic building of Canal du Midi, which was finished in 1681 and stretches 240 kilometers from Toulouse to the port town of Sete, and was intended to be the defining element of a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In Béziers, there are nine locks of the Canal du Midi, which together are the third most visited tourist site in France, after the Pont du Gard and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. These days, the old city center is wonderful to wander. You get positively blissful doing it, as there's something noteworthy or at least charming around every corner. Good thing, too: as any small Mediterranean city worthy of the name, Béziers is so very closed on Sunday afternoons. Finding a restaurant open for lunch was well-nigh impossible, so we settled for a cafe-bar with rows of shaded swinging chairs, sandwiches jambon-beurre and citrons pressés. Small pleasures can bring the biggest joy. Especially when you're hot and hungry.
Béziers may also have been resting up for the party of the year, which opened today. The Feria takes over the city for 5 days every year, with the long bull-fighting tradition of the city as its centerpiece. In France, certain though not all forms of bullfighting are non-lethal, and the bulls thus often have long, lucrative careers. The interest in the Béziers feria is intense: it is said that a million people attend. I don't suppose all can fit in the Roman arenas where the spectacles occur, and for those of us who still find it a bit of a blood sport, the feria is known as much for its high quality street music and theater, extensive open-air markets, parades, equestrian events...But of course we missed all that.Getting home, we were good and hungry (again), and grilling already marinaded chicken brochettes was the easy solution, along with stuffed tomatoes. When you make these, look for tomatoes that are intended for stuffing, such as the 'Striped Caverns' I went with. Stuffing tomatoes are actually rather dry and hollowish inside, not unlike a bell pepper. They are the ultimate heirloom tomato, as they are said to be how tomatoes used to be, before the development of the modern cultivars we know today. They taste fine stuffed with nearly anything, from meat, to rice, to veg, to couscous. I like using the really large couscous, which, depending on where you are, is known as Maftoul, pearl couscous, Israeli couscous, etc., etc. I also throw in a generous, heady combination of typical North African spices (don't worry, they mellow in the process), crumble in some Greek feta, use some of the zucchini all my gardening friend share with me, add a piquant element with balsamic vinegar, and voilà. What to eat after a sun-soaked day trip.Tomates farcies à la Méditerranéenne (Mediterranean Stuffed Tomatoes)

Serves four as a side dish.

1 liter chicken broth
1 large clove garlic, very finely minced
1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
¼ teaspoon ground chili pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Fresh ground pepper
100 g maftoul/pearl couscous/Israeli couscous
4-6 stuffing tomatoes (ex: Yellow Stuffer, Red Stuffer or Striped Cavern)
1 tablespoon good-quality balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon thick crème fraîche
1 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
1/3 cup Greek feta, crumbled

Add the minced garlic, tomato concentrate and all the spices, including the fresh ground pepper to the chicken broth. Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a medium sized saucepan. Add the maftoul/pearl couscous/Israeli couscous to the spiced broth. Allow the couscous to boil for about eleven minutes (ten will be rather firm, twelve will be a bit too soft). While the couscous is cooking, cut off the tops of the tomatoes, cut the ribs and scoop out the flesh and seeds. Once ready, remove couscous from the heat and strain, reserving the tasty, thick broth for another use (cooking rice, as a soup base, etc). Add vinegar, oil, crème fraîche and some more fresh ground pepper to the strained couscous and stir to combine well. Lightly sauté the zucchini in a large pan over medium heat in two batches to keep it from getting mushy. As the zucchini is just barely cooked (2-3 minutes), stir in the red bell pepper and continue to cook another minute or so. They should still have a bit of bite. Mix the two vegetables and the crumbled feta in with the couscous. Stuff the tomatoes with the couscous mixture. Before serving, warm the tomatoes in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 150C.

08 August, 2010

Eating well in Barcelona, and a bowlful of American summer.

So I left you hanging there for a bit. For me, multi-tasking usually results in a lot of stuff being done...poorly. Accordingly, during the holiday influx(es) of friends and/or family, blogging takes a backseat. This is neither a reflection upon you nor the subject at hand: good food. Which I can't wait to tell you about.

Sometimes food just tastes better because someone you love (or hell, someone other than you) is making it. This is not the case at Cinc Sentits. I'd decided to go for broke and check out their haute Catalan cuisine for myself, as they are considered one of the better tables in Barcelona, which is saying something. The chef is young Jordi Artal. The setting is formal and spare, nearly monastic (except for maybe the one splash of pink). The slightly severe tone of the room is lightened by the fact that Mr. Artal's sweet mother and his sister are busy attending to your every potential need.

I'd come in speaking Spanish, and was taken aback when Mr. Artal's sister, who'd evidently overheard us chatting amongst ourselves, suddenly spoke to us in perfect "North American" English; as it turns out, the family has spent time in Toronto. This might explain the origin of the little amuse: a shooter of maple syrup, a touch of cream, and sabayon of cava (Catalan sparkling white wine), with a sprinkle of coarse salt at the bottom. An eyebrow-raiser by description alone, but wow. 'Goooal!' for the salty and sweet side. This was followed by the tried and true Catalan tapas, pa amb tomaquet, normally a thin baguette, logically called a flauta, toasted and rubbed with fresh tomato and garlic. Here, adroitly turned on its head.
Thus, a fresh tomato sorbet, topped with a vivid garlic 'air'--i.e. the foam bit--and toasted croutons, judiciously dosed with gorgeous olive oil. This was followed by a classic, chilled Andalusian ajoblanco (garlic and ground almond soup) reworked, with fresh cherries, cherry pit granita and Spanish Marcona almonds. Forgive me for the lack of a photo, we were too busy talking about the maple syrup starter. And then enjoying the startling soup.
All talk ceased abruptly, however, when we were presented with the foie gras coca. A coca is a sort of thin pastry. Between the precise layers of crisp crust, glazed leeks and chive garnish--and the caramelized foie gras itself, well, now I have to tell folks the best foie gras I have ever tasted was outside of France. Nothing short of sublime.
Apparently still under the enchantment of the foie gras, I clapped my hands like a five year old when I saw that the next course featured my favorite Mediterranean fish, red mullet (or rouget). This was accompanied by a basil risotto and an apricot sauce. Again, eye-rollingly good.
I'd already bitten into the first melty forkful of cochinillo (Iberian suckling pig) when I remembered my camera, and you. The apple accompaniments were somewhat forgettable, but the meat. Lord. Sous-vide (slow-cooked at an exceedingly low temperature) with a crackling crust. And to think I was once a vegetarian. For years. (Problems with anemia, etc. and so on.)
The cheese, a Blau de l'Avi Ton, was gorgeously presented with orange marmalade glaze and a delicate, perfect spice bread. Too intense for the likes of me.
My overwhelmed mouth got a welcome reprieve with the 'citrus snow', an ephemeral, playful combination of lemon ice cream, powdered white chocolate and lime 'pop-rocks' (effervescent, the carbon dixide is released in your mouth and fizzes and sizzles like Carnaval in Rio)--and oh yes--yuzu foam. This was followed by the (ahem) actual dessert.
The chocolate you see is an intense 67%, with a dollop of olive oil ice cream, shattered bread, and underneath some extraordinary, deeply fragrant macadamias. Whew. Again, he revisits, recalibrates, redefines a Catalan standard. I O.D.'ed on chocolate.
Or so I thought.
Because these little sweet nothings were what accompanied coffee. That's not a raw egg you see, it's a gelee of pomegranate...And yes, I still managed the tiny, perfect chocolate truffle after downing the glass of blanc-manger perfumed with...lilac.

Do I even need to mention he has a Michelin star?

On the way back home, once off the highway, we passed farm stand after farm stand, flush with fruit, vegetables and hand-painted signs. At this time of year, they are hard to resist. So why bother trying? After all, those fuzzy peaches, tree-ripened and juicy as all get out, they need to be eaten. Half were gone before the crate I walked off with actually made it to my kitchen table. The rest went into the obvious: the quintessentially [colonial] American farmhouse dessert: peach cobbler. The only thing that comes close to a cobbler in France is the Limousin flaugnarde, but that involves eggs, which make it closer to a flan or a clafoutis. I've gussied up the cobbler a bit, using as a base the online recipe by a certain Ms. aeposey. Ginger and even paprika pair beautifully with intensely flavored fruit (just ask those who had my ginger blackberry crumble last night.) This takes mere minutes to pull together. You'll spend more time hearing out the compliments. Honest John. But no beauty awards; this is to be filed in the ugly but good category.

That's why you only get an extreme close-up...

Do I even need to mention I don't have a Michelin star?

Cobbler aux pêches épicées (Spiced Peach Cobbler)
Serves six.

6 or 7 fresh peaches, peeled and coarsely chopped in largish chunks
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup finely minced candied ginger (optional but delicious)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger (or ground galagal)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon paprika
a scant sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (also optional but delicious)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and finely cubed
1/4 cup boiling water

Preheat oven 220C. In a large bowl, combine chopped peaches, sugars, both kinds of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, and cornstarch well. Place the mixture into (medium-sized) baking dish and bake for 10 minutes. While this bakes, combine the flour, ground and chopped almonds, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Blend in butter using your hands (yes!) rubbing the cubes of butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal, or bread crumbs. Stir in very hot water until just combined. Remove the now hot peaches from the oven and slop/drop the dough by casual spoonfuls over the fruit. Return to the oven, and bake until deeply golden, 25-35 minutes. Can be served hot, warm or the next day at lunch, for a more rich, cakey taste.

02 August, 2010

Back to Barcelona.

Who turns down a chance to go to Barcelona? Not I. So I found myself back on the E15, zipping southward past the stately, snow-capped Pyrénées mountains. In less time than you might expect, I found myself in the vibrant city center.
I love to people-watch. I also love food. The best of all possible situations are when both are combined.
The dynamic energy of the city is due at least in part to the independent-minded Catalans who call it home. This little girl was fascinated with the flower petals and other wedding detritus outside the cathedral.
In place of a wedding, ongoing renovation at the National Cathedral.
After all the wandering, fried boquerones (fresh anchovies) at a nearby cerveseria were a welcome sight. That and the globe-shaped copa of beer.I stumbled across the serene barri goti (Gothic quarter) square where the Sant Felip Neri cathedral sits. The damage on its facade is said to be due to machine-gun fire from executions carried out by pro-Franco troops in 1939.
It's hot in Barcelona in July and August, which is why so many locals head elsewhere in that period. For those remaining, keeping comfortable is key, and even dogs get their turn at the local water fountain. This wasn't the first time for this trio: they clearly anticipated the routine.
This man looked like he's been world-weary since medieval times.
Originally from Valencia, orxata (or horchata in Spanish) is very refreshing way to stay cool. It's made of the juice of tiger nuts (known as chufa) sugar and water. It is served ice-cold, and tastes a bit like lightly sweetened soy milk. The window-watching can go on for some time.
These candies are made by hand in every possible flavor and color permutation. These were, of course, lime and pink grapefruit flavored.
Another pit stop for xurros (piped, fried doughnuts). It is all this specialist makes, other than the hot chocolate to go with it. There are an awful lot of 'x's in Catalan. Luckily, I could use my basic Spanish most everywhere. Thank goodness Barcelonins are patient and friendly!
But where do they go for ingredients to make their delicious finger foods?
In addition to the conventional supermarkets (where you can safely stow your basket on wheels--and apparently your dog--for a coin, as seen below), there are the covered markets, of course.Beyond the famous Mercat de la Boqueria, said to be Barcelona's oldest and largest covered food market, there are dozens and dozens of others, some more modest in scale but heavily frequented by the locals. Some of Spain's world famous ham.
Cooling off the Iberic way. Cashews, some of which have been toasted, dipped in honey and rolled in white sesame seeds. Hungry yet?
More candy than you can shake a toothbrush at.
I was thrilled with the profound sweetness and juiciness of my piece of pineapple, which hydrated sufficiently for me to make one of the more important travel decisions: where to eat.
(To be continued.)
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