06 September, 2010

To-may-to, to-mah-to.

Everything comes to an end, even the summer holiday. This year, the entire season seemed to drift along, unmoored to any orthodox notion of time. Just as when we were kids. The shift from joy to abject misery (or non-joy?) was abrupt, if only for me. First, I was disabled by a fiendish ear infection. The pain was dagger-like and impressive in scope. Even the outside of my ear swelled. The ear’s not yet back in commission, but at least the pain has been pushed back—now if they could just do something about the incessant tinnitus. Then I lost my internet connection (oh, please don’t ask). More than a week later, I still don’t have it—this latest missive is being sent from my neighbor’s computer (mille mercis, Manon!). I’m working on regaining access. I use the word ’attempt’ because the service (ha!) provider is Orange, which in itself explains why I’ve been struggling with this situation (and the people who are supposed to be helping me) for way too long now. For those of us tucked into the mountains, the evenings have taken on a particular crispness; we’d nearly forgotten... The children are back in school, which means a new stuff strewn across the kitchen table: the library books, swim goggles and sunscreen have been replaced by fountain pen cartridges, brand spanking new notebooks--and more sunscreen. I smear that on them before they head out the door: the days are still scorchers, even if the nights are far cooler.

We’re (still) barefoot more often than not. And we’re (still) waiting for the rain. So some things haven’t changed. And there is still a bit of summer magic to be found. Half the various doors and windows of the old farmhouse we inhabit are usually flung open to the world, and the other day (as has happened before) I came upon a bird in the kitchen, this time a young wagtail. We were both surprised. She fluttered and made a dash for a closed window, stopping just in time to close her claws around the sash instead, one eye wide on me all the while. I edged like a burglar along the kitchen’s perimeter to the terrace door, which I opened and from which I hastily retreated. The coast clear, she flew arrow-like through the doorway, and alighted on the terrace wall just a few feet away to let loose her perfect declarative song, shot through with lightness and joy.

Sometimes I feel nearly as intensely lyrical as that wagtail. Sometimes it is all about a particular dish, which is when I share it with you.
I can get all doe-eyed about untreated-local-produce-in-season, but what really make me weak in the knees are juicy, properly ripened tomatoes. North Americans call what I love heirloom tomatoes. I call them one of the chief reasons to show up for summer, and the first thing to plant in any vegetable garden. The cherry tomatoes at our house never even make it to the kitchen, as they are consumed on the spot. Some of the bigger tomatoes are bitten into with enormous relish, as if they were the ripest of plums. My four year old does this. He leans over, but the juices and seeds still go everywhere. You should see how he smiles when that happens. Eating is fun when it tastes this good and gets this messy. So really, the right thing to do is find a properly ripened, never once refrigerated tomato and follow his lead. If you’re wearing something nice and would rather not splatter, then make an Italian insalate caprese instead. And yes, real mozzarella is made from water buffalo milk. Treat yourself to some of that if you can. (The kids hoover that creamy goodness up as well). My neighbors seem mighty pleased with the tomato, courgette and carrot crumble I’ve been bringing around. This crumble is just a nudge in the actually-cooking direction, but only the slightest of nudges. The oven’s heat does the work, drawing out the sweet, mellow side of the tomatoes. I add the other vegetables just to maintain a bit of structure, as the star attraction does go a bit melty. Parboil the carrots and just blanch the courgettes, so they’ll be fully cooked once the crumble’s finished. Of course other vegetables, such as onion, and other herbs, such as marjoram or thyme, can be added or substituted. The crumble should bake at 180 C (350 F) for about three-quarters of an hour if you’re sticking with tom’s & co. You want some bubbling going on, some browning of the crumble--which you remembered to press down a bit before you slipped the dish into the oven.

This crunchy crumble is both savory and sweet, with much of the sweet coming from the cornmeal. It would also be delicious on a meat pie, especially a chicken pot pie. Incidentally, I’m getting a bit hungry just typing this, because now I’m also thinking back to the plum tart I made with this savory crumble topping. I’d just added a couple extra tablespoons of sugar to the crumble mix, and the dessert was really remarkable. The fruit flavors deepened to the nth degree against the backdrop of the savory crumble. So you can use it on fruit, for dessert, as well. Puts me in mind of the sweet/salty riff of one of those apple and cheddar pies—which I’ve yet to actually taste. But I digress—a lot. Here’s the recipe. Make it once; it may well become one of your signature dishes.

Crumble salé (Savory Crumble)

Makes enough for a couple of crumbles, depending on the size.

100 g flour
100 g medium-ground corn flour (i.e. thicker than cornstarch)*
100 g cornmeal (as used for making polenta)
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh-ground pepper
2-4 large pods cardamom, shelled and ground fine
200 g butter, coarsely sliced

Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl. After you have ground the cardamom in a mortar, use some of the salt to remove the last bits of cardamom ‘dust’. Over medium high heat, melt the pieces of butter in a saucepan (not nonstick, because you want to be able to closely monitor the color of the butter as you brown it). The butter will foam and sizzle, browning in a matter of minutes. Swirl the pan occasionally to prevent scorching. When the butter gives off a scrumptious, faintly nutty scent and has turned a light to medium brown, remove immediately from the heat and drizzle over the dry ingredients. Use a fork to combine evenly, then spread the mixture over a cookie sheet, spreading thinly with the fork. Place in the refrigerator an hour or so. Once thoroughly chilled, coarsely break into pieces, to be sprinkled immediately over the tomatoes or stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

*If corn flour is unavailable, use a multigrain or a whole grain for flavor and body.


  1. Hi Tammy,
    I just found your beautiful blog. This tomato crumble recipe looks great and your photos are beautiful.
    Nice to meet another American in France.

  2. Tammy, do you think you would cook this way if you had stayed in the US?
    (I love the first photo with the shadow of the gingko tree).

  3. Hello Aidan,
    Well thank you for the compliments and for dropping in. Hope to 'see' you again soon. Of course, I am still without internet access; vive la France, vive Orange...

    Hello Nadege,
    Ah you guessed right--it's a neighbor's gingko biloba. As a matter of fact, I'm typing this from her house, as I still have NO internet, GRR. My cooking has been influenced from the time spent in Europe, without a doubt. But I still use herbs and spices rather generously, like an American (or a Vietnamese) might. The access to better ingredients is easier here in some respects. What has changed me and the way I cook and appreciate food are the close interactions with producers, the loyalties that grow over time. Very interesting question! How has your cooking changed, as a Frenchwoman in the US?

  4. I think I have become 100 % American. I did the wheat grass, juicing, food combining... diets, all the usual gimmicks. But I also got to learn and love foreign foods, culture and religions. I think I am more open than if I would have stayed in France. Traditions are great, but you have to stay open to the world.
    When I am in France, I love french food but I am also weary of the butter and fat, charcuterie... A little goes a long way now.
    (America is not racist, only some uneducated, fearful individuals are. I think that the pastor wanting to burn books of the Koran is good in a way because we can learn some ugly truth from this man and hopefully, see the light. America will be OK, but sometimes I don't know about France and its problems with Muslims, Gypsies... I remember a France that was different. Sure, I am not the same I used to be, but it seems to me that France has gotten "smaller", more uneducated, less tolerant).

  5. Nadege,
    I think that just as there are many different Americas, there are many different Frances. There is the old-fashioned France, but there are also newer Frances, such as the one exemplified by a friend, neighbor and fellow mother. She incorporates as much raw food as possible into her family lifestyle, and she introduced me to agar-agar (as a Japanese style, vegetarian replacement to gelatine), and she embraces lighter forms of cooking.

    Yes, the traditional foods may be quite rich, but the portions are half what they are in the US, and between meals there is no snacking (aside from children who have their 'quatre heures'). But McDo, KFC, and Quick have spread their artery-hardening tentacles deeply into France too. Wherever you live, it's about making choices that fit who you are : I simply don't take my kids to fast food restaurants. Fries are an occasional treat, and part of a meal that is as reasonably balanced as possible. In-season fruit are the summer treat of choice (after organic chocolate ice cream for the littlest one...)

    As I see it, racism rears its Gorgon head everywhere, not only in the US and France. In Europe as a whole, large-scale immigration and assimilation are enormous issues yet to be resolved. And I agree with you, a country is not racist, individuals are. But it's up to all of us to decide how much we will allow their fears, hatred and aggression to dominate the agenda.

    Being exposed to other cultures by living abroad or traveling extensively can make a person more open, no matter what country they're from. I'd like to think I am a (slightly?) more open, aware American for having spent much of my life in other cultures. Sometimes the acquired openness can make the country of origin seem suddenly smaller and more closed in comparison...(Don't get me started on the alarmingly easy availability of guns in the US, for example!)


Thanks for visiting my blog and joining in the conversation!

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