31 January, 2010
There is a pretty good chance you're familiar with bergamot, even if you think you aren't: its distinctively piney fragrant rind is what oil of bergamot is made from, and oil of bergamot is what perfumes Earl Grey tea. (It is also in Lady Grey tea, which has more of a clearly citrus fragrance, as the bergamot is softened by the additions of lemon and orange peel).
Bergamot is a small, bitter orange, citrus aurantium subsp. bergamia, mainly cultivated in Calabria, although bergamot of somewhat lesser quality is produced in Turkey, where you can also find bergamot preserves, and there are ongoing attempts (with varying degrees of success) to produce this fruit in Argentina, Brazil, Ivory Coast, the US and Morocco. Beyond Earl Grey, bergamot is used in perfumes; according to Wikipedia and other sources, about one third of all men's colognes and half of women's perfumes contain its essential oil, although many also resort to chemical copies of bergamot. In aromatherapy, it is traditionally used to counter depression and stress, but it also has antiseptic qualities. User beware: its proven effectiveness as a clarifying skin toner is only in minute amounts, blended with other oils. Any more and you risk a photosensitive reaction if you go in the sun.
Of course, the only self-medication I planned to indulge in with my half-dozen bergamot oranges was the edible kind. I made a homey glazed yogurt cake, or gâteau au yaourt--the go-to recipe for French home cooks everywhere--dosed with a big spoonful of grated zest and lashings of bergamot juice, which is as pucker-worthy as lemon juice but definitely more bitter than grapefruit. This complex bitterness is why bergamot, beyond tea, is also an excellent addition to cocktails, sodas and other mixed drinks. As there were still more bergamot oranges in my fruit basket, and I had no raging desire for a high-toned bourbon sour B-Line, I went trawling online and found my answer at Vancouver, Washington (USA) based Hungry Cravings blog.
Blogger Lucy came up with her own bergamot riff on scrumptious Russian tea cakes (sometimes known as Mexican wedding cookies), and I immediately pounced upon her recipe. In the photo above, they are cooling after having been baked, but aren't yet rolled in powdered sugar.
These rich little cakelets actually melt in your mouth, leaving a sweet lemony aftertaste, which brings to mind what is perhaps the most old-fashioned French culinary use of bergamot: the boiled, hand-cut bergamot-flavored hard candies of Nancy, a town in the Lorraine. (Photo below courtesy of the Lorraine tourism bureau.)As for Lucy's confections, having made them (and kids could make them, they are that easy), the only alteration I might recommend would be to increase the amount of bergamot zest from 1 to 2 tablespoons. Another tip: make these when you are certain company is coming, or you plan to call on others (bearing gifts), because there is a reasonable chance you + thirty to forty of these decadent beauties = a little too much over-the-kitchen-sink consumption...I think I'll make some non-alcoholic sparkling fruit spritzers with the remaining bergamot to detox from all the butter.
28 January, 2010
Until I figured out just how easy it is to make your own. At its unadulterated best, yogurt is an excellent balance of easily assimilated proteins, carbs, and healthy fatty acids, such as CLA, only obtainable from dairy products, which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, fight inflammation, increase resistance, your basic nutritional superhero stuff. Of course yogurt is also rich in the B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium...and its acidity helps to better assimilate the large amounts of calcium it contains.
The homemade sort has no unexpected thickeners, such as (lower-cost) pork-derived gelatin (yes, vegetarians, it is often so, certainly in the US) or pectin, no preservatives, artificial flavors or sweeteners. It does, however, have superior flavor and superb, creamy texture (similar to French-style yogurt), and is above all loaded with live yogurt cultures--the essential, good bacteria you need to maintain intestinal health and support your immune system. All this for a fraction of what you would pay for in a store.
I'll admit I was unable to pass up a deal (under 10 euros!) that coincided with my then-fresh ambition, so I got a yogurt maker. But a friend of mine simply puts baby food jars or other containers into a larger container, fills the larger container with boiling water just up to the lids, and slides this container into her oven. She then simply turns on the pilot light, and leaves the milk to gently cool and ferment overnight. That's it. And hers is delicious. My weak defense for a yogurt maker is that the 150 ml jars are better sized with nice sturdy lids, while baby food jars are usually just too small--and well, there was that deal. (Sigh. I try to reduce and simplify...)
At any rate, you can find as many recipes out there as there are opinions. The recipe I've developed is sort of a hybrid of Western techniques and Vietnamese yogurt, or sữa chua. Pronounced “su-aw chu-ah,” it means sour milk, but the Vietnamese also "vietnamized" the French colonizers' word for yogurt, yaourt, into da ua, pronounced “yah u-ah.” What differentiates Vietnamese yogurt from the Western sort with which we are generally more familiar, is that condensed milk is an essential component.
On my shortlist of must-have pantry ingredients, condensed milk always has a place. It is an unctuous, exceedingly accomodating cooking aid that among other things, adds depth to cakes, hot chocolate, and ice cream. And of course it is what becomes dulce de leche, or milk caramel, after a couple of hours on the stove. When flying through the supermarket, please be sure not to confuse this little can with similarly canned evaporated, un-sweetened milk, which while also useful is not interchangeable.
For the probiotic cultures either use a fresh-as-possible single serving of live-culture yogurt (check the label, they will proudly state its presence) or two 8 gram packets of freeze-dried, powdered culture. I get my packets at the organic supermarket; they are a blend of Streptococcus thermophilus and Lacto bacillus bulgaricus. You may well find the packets in the refrigerated section of a well-stocked supermarket that carries a mix or organic and conventional goods. The advantage with the packets is that they take little space and can be kept quite a while. Whatever you go with, the cultures contained will affect the end result. Try different cultures. The more types of probiotic bacteria involved, the faster the yogurt will set. Some ferment faster than others (and the earlier fermenting-ones often also produce an innocent, yellowish liquidy whey, which you just stir back into the yogurt. So depending on the approach and cultures, it will take anywhere from four to eight hours waiting for your yogurt to set. If you leave it a really long time, say because you forgot it, it will alter from tangy, to sometimes unacceptably sour.
Because I use UHT (Ultra High Temperature) flash-pasteurized milk, there is no need to heat/sterilize the milk beforehand, which is good for maintaining the the optimum vitamin content. And it means one step less.
Dare to experiment: if you prefer a thicker, Greek style yogurt (nearly a cream cheese), you can try either adding 5 tablespoons of dried, powdered milk when you are blending in the yogurt or powdered culture, or you can drain the fully set yogurt through a very fine strainer or coffee filter. Please note that if you want plain, unsweetened yogurt, simply add the 5 tablespoons of dried milk, organic if possible when adding the cultures, and omit the condensed milk and vanilla.
I can assure you that despite the long-winded preliminary explanation you have just endured, cooking an egg is more complicated than this particular yogurt recipe; after all, in all its variations it has successfully been made around the world, far less scientifically, for thousands of years.
Yaourt Vanillé Gourmand & Santé Maison/Healthy Homemade Vanilla Yogurt
Makes 7 150-ml servings, which can be kept technically about two weeks, though I've never managed to keep them that long.
2 eight gram packets of refrigerated, powdered live cultures
OR 1 serving of plain yogurt with live cultures (bifidus)
4 tablespoons condensed milk
1 tablespoon pure double-strength vanilla extract (I swear by Penzeys)
1 liter organic UHT milk (whole or half-fat, cow, goat or sheep)
Make sure all implements and the glass containers are well-cleaned and dried.
Thoroughly combine the powdered culture OR yogurt with the condensed milk and vanilla extract with a whisk. Add a few tablespoons of milk, thoroughly combine until uniform. Mix in the rest of the milk. Pour into glass containers. Leave to ferment 4-8 hours, in a yogurt maker or in a (boiling) hot bain-marie in the oven (leaving only the pilot light on).
Enjoy as is, or with additions of fruit or granola, at any time of the day. As you might guess from the dimly lit image below, it also makes for a delicious midnight treat.
25 January, 2010
21 January, 2010
Just as last year, I took the winding roads past the austerely dormant fields of Uzège grapevines, and drove under a Roman aqueduct, Uzès having served as the spring for Nîmes in Roman times. I stared rather hard at the surrounding trees, particularly the oaks and hazelnut, for under these trees a mysterious and symbiotic relationship may perhaps be blooming. About 15 centimeters underground, that is.
Today, about 80% of French black truffles are cultivated (as opposed to the white truffles of Italy, which grow only in the wild). Most black truffles thus come from truffle grounds, where oak or other trees have been infected with the fungus and planted. As at least a decade goes by before any chance of harvest, many farmers plant lavender or grapevines alongside to ensure some source of interim income. Cultivation of the truffle remains a demanding and uncertain endeavor.
Some argue against formal truffle production, as there has been a steady decline in truffles since the late 1800s, which is when truffle cultivation began. To give you an idea: in the early twentieth century, about a thousand metric tons of truffles were harvested annually in France, while today a good annual yield may reach thirty tons. It is argued that the modern agricultural and forestry methods being used have resulted in the destruction of natural flora and fauna. This loss negatively affects truffles, whose development is delicate and depends on an exceedingly complex interaction and precise balance of the soil, climate and biosphere.
Once harvested, the most sublime culinary marriage, as argued historically and by those in the know, is perhaps truffle and foie gras. The heady melding of flavors is inoubliable-- unforgettable--but this is also a pretty decadent double-whammy of a luxury if done right. I tried something new this time over lunch, an aperitif made of white wine, chestnut brandy and truffle essence. My verdict? Put the pungent truffle in dishes rather than drink. And keep to raw shavings, or add as late as possible in the actual cooking. Truffle plays to perfection with scallops, potatoes, pasta and risotto, and chicken. Or with pâté, as in the tasty little pastry-covered traditions from Nîmes in the photo below. Don't forget how easy it is to make your own truffle oil using extra virgin, mild olive oil, as the possibilities then extend even further.
And of course there's the simple egg. Grab some very fresh eggs, organic if possible, put them in a mason jar, tuck in a truffle, close and refrigerate for a day or two, then take a moment to make scrambled eggs. The Romans were convinced truffles, cloaked as they are even today in certain mysteries, have distinct aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps they had this dish in mind.
OEufs Brouillés aux Truffes/Scrambled Eggs with Black Truffles
Serves two. Of course, this can be doubled if you're feeling especially starved--or social.
30 g fresh black truffle
1 small garlic clove, split and the bitter green sprout in center removed
15 g butter or olive oil
6 room temperature eggs (that have preferably been stored with the truffle)
fresh ground pepper and salt to taste
walnut bread or hearty country bread
Cut two generous slices of truffle, set aside, and finely chop the remainder. Lightly rub the bottom of a frying pan with the split garlic. Add a spoonful of butter and the minced truffle. Just warm the minced truffle over low heat, do not overheat. Transfer the truffle to a mixing bowl, add the room temperature eggs and briefly beat with a fork.
Cover and set aside to "infuse", for twenty minutes. Toast slices of bread, cutting into quarters lengthwise (so they look somewhat like long ladyfingers). Warm two plates in the oven at low heat.
Melt a spoonful of butter in the frying pan, add the infused eggs and salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until the eggs are just set, and the consistency of a quite moist omelet. Serve the scrambled eggs on the warmed plates, and garnish each serving with a trufle slice.
19 January, 2010
Then there's Haiti. After being pillaged by the Spanish for slaves and gold, the French and Spanish settled their differences and split up the island, with the French quickly setting up plantations. By 1790, over 30,000 French had emigrated there seeking their fortune in sugar and coffee--on the backs of thousands of local and imported slaves. Shortly thereafter, however, inspired in part by the French Revolution, freed and enslaved blacks began to insurrect. To appease them, the French abolished slavery, hoping to develop longer lasting alliances. This position shifted with a change in government however, and Napoleon Bonaparte sent in soldiers to retake the highly profitable island. His attempt failed and in the process he would ultimately lose 50,000 soldiers. The French owners emigrated en masse, and the French government demanded that the newly independent country make very significant reparations, all but bankrupting the country before it even started. Nonetheless, Haiti was the first former colony in the world to emerge wholly independent after the abolition of slavery.
Western powers, including the United States (which occupied it from 1915 to 1934), continued to intervene in Haiti through the decades, usually to the overall detriment of the country. It has been structurally weakened over time by corruption from within and without, much to the misfortune of the average Haitian. This weakness is painfully evident in how completely the inadequately prepared Port-au-Prince collapsed after the devastating January 12 earthquake. The photos and news of profound suffering are very difficult to ignore.
But we can help right now.
If you can spare the price of a modest restaurant meal or two, please consider making a donation to a worthy organization. Partners in Health is one such organization, with a well-regarded 20 year track record in Haiti and a staff that is primarily locally-based nationals. Please take a quick moment to visit their site. And spread the word.
In 2010, Haitians are certainly ready for some acts of mercy.
15 January, 2010
Shadow the rabbit was more at home in the winter white, coming out for daily doses of sun, and making himself the rather impertinent visitor in the henhouse, where I had put the animals' water as it kept freezing over. Yes, it can get that cold in the south, too, just not so often.
As you might suspect, this video by Sean Stiegemeier was not taken in my backyard, but it did make me dream of snow. Perhaps it will do the same for you. Have an excellent winter weekend.
13 January, 2010
I just wanted to bake a cake with it.
I'm not the only fan. Today, from the Starbucks Matcha Frappucino to the Jamba Juice Matcha Energy Shot Orange Juice, from Pierre Herme's elaborately constructed matcha cakes and chocolates to matcha and tiramisu-flavored Kit Kat bars, from energy bars to cereals, matcha has hit Main street in many parts of the world. Based on the cooking magazines I rifle through, sites I visit and friends I talk to, my informal perception is that the French are a good deal more charmed by matcha flavor possibilities than are Americans, who seem to focus on the very significant health and dieting benefits. Once again, I kind of find myself in the French camp.
11 January, 2010
All things considered, things could have been a lot worse.
08 January, 2010
Marseille (population, some 1.7 million) has long been independent-minded, but it has also been so outright rebellious that it has been forcibly reined in by Paris--a number of times. Louis XIV took it by force, turning the port cannons around from their normal positions facing the sea and pointing them inward on the uppity citizenry. Even as recently as 1936 Marseille has been taken over by the state in an explosive corruption scandal.
At the same time there has long been a fascination with the port. Today, the most successful soap opera on French television, Plus Belle La Vie, is based in Marseille. You can buy anything from baby bibs and pens to christmas ornaments, all emblazoned with the show's logo... And of course there's Ligue 1 football/soccer (Olympique de Marseille, or l'OM, just slaughtered the Languedoc Roussillon team on Wednesday, if you care to know).
A recent article in the newspaper Le Monde by François Thomazeau (best known for his Marseilles-based detective stories) discussed Marseille's membership in the Cities On The Edge campaign--as well as Marseille's 2013 coronation as a European City of Culture. (Liverpool was a City of Culture in 2008, and Istanbul is 2010's City). Along with the five other often-maligned port cities that make up the Cities On The Edge--Liverpool, Naples, Bremen, Gdansk and Istanbul--Marseille has chosen to play up its melting pot present, tumultuous past and sometimes louche reputation. The article, intriguing and worth a read, has since been translated online.
It is the oldest--the first--city of France, founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. It continued to serve as an essential hub for the Romans, who eventually simply took it over. Its strategic and economic importance have guaranteed it a continuously turbulent, fascinating history in the centuries since then. Already by the late 1700s, it is said that more than half its population came from somewhere else. Today, it remains in large measure defined by its colorful immigrant population, in good and not-so-good ways.
Still somewhat leaden from my on-going bout with bronchitis, I only stayed one day, long enough for me to see that like its most famous soup, the bouillabaisse, Marseille is certainly a heady mix of ingredients. (You can see this musically as well: it is the center of French (black) hip-hop, yet boasts a gorgeous old Opera, with highly regarded ballet and opera performances). I missed the big Provençal santon fair, though all the Christmas lights were still up and sparkling around the ship-filled Vieux Port (Old Port). But I admired the old architecture, caught the daily fish market in the Vieux Port, and even successfully ventured into the twice-a-year frenzy that is les soldes.
And yes, I had a (pricey) bouillabaisse for lunch, at Miramar, a rather stuffy culinary institution known for its defining bouillabaisse. The portions are brobdingnagian, better suited for a Goliath who has a thing for seafood. I amused myself counting nearby fur coats and designer sunglasses--kept on in the restaurant as well, natch--in between spoonfuls of steaming stew and broth-soaked croutons slathered with rouille (a whipped sauce made of olive oil, saffron, lots of garlic and chili). I wear leather shoes, carry a leather bag; who I am to point the finger at mink-wearers?
My meal began with an airy cream of butternut squash, unexpectedly topped with intensely fragrant sautéed escargots and an ethereal cream of garlic. Having the choice between a chestnut risotto with its seared foie gras, and leeks in a coriander-inflected chicken bouillon, adroitly drizzled with white truffle oil and served with scallops a la plancha, I opted for the latter. It was a nuanced seduction, but the main course really stole the show. I went with pollock (akin to cod) roasted in the crispy skin, served with slowly braised fennel and astonishingly delicious, sweet stewed red cabbage, or compote de choux rouge.
Associating squash and snail is surprising enough, but white fish and red cabbage seems nearly anathemy at first blush. But oh, how it worked beautifully. That was the best tasting fish I'd had in years. I struggled not to get closer to his handkerchief-sized, open kitchen to find out just how he made that magnificent, ruby-colored compote. I struggled not to ask when he left his busy kitchen to check, twice, to see whether I was happy with my meal. It is the first time I have ever really enjoyed red cabbage. Why, oh why didn't I ask?
Dessert was a thick slice of pineapple that had been cooked for twelve hours in spices yet retained a fresh lightness, which was balanced by a serving of a frothy, complex sorbet made from the pineapple core, rendered non-fibrous somehow.
As you can see, I was able to end a coughing- and bureaucracy-filled day quite nicely, walking past the still waters of the Vieux Port, my cheeks still glowing from animated conversation with fellow diners, excellent food and the general wonderfulness of the world.
The success of Carton de Grammont's casual bistro is not accidental, being built upon his experience in a series of Michelin-starred restaurants, and his work and travel as far afield as Uruguay. His restaurant is in the vanguard of a wave of fresh restaurants gastronomiques, as Alexander Lobrano well illustrates in France Today online ("Marseille: Beyond Bouillabaisse", December 7, 2009). You can find the coordinates and reviews for the Café des Epices in the online Michelin guide here.