18 February, 2010

Half of me is here.

What heavenly weather in very sunny California, what a lovely time with family whom I haven't seen in more years than I am willing to admit, what a pity my internet connection will continue to be inconstant at best. Trust me, the story isn't worth the telling. Suffice it to say I am limited by circumstance to writing to you, and photos will likely only be added after March 1. [Photos now added...as you can see.]
It has been a bright whirlwind of dragon dances, incense, firecrackers, parades, hugs and catching up with family. And the FOOD, a whole separate post is the least I can give it. There are also all the hallmarks of the US: vintage shop signs; pristine public spaces (the Getty is a must-see--and be sure to give it the time it deserves); bumper stickers; a distressingly large number of very overweight people dressed in exercise clothes; bumper stickers; message T-shirts ("Fathers Impart Destiny"...); and the Goodyear blimp floating placidly above it all. Here, all the last names (on salespeoples' name tags) sing of places far away, the air is full of the bird-like sounds of languages only vaguely familiar: Spanish, Vietnamese...Too many businesses are shuttered, too many people seem over-qualified for the jobs they have, and yet the optimism is still (mostly) here.

11 February, 2010

Hybrid vigor.

Increased vigor or other superior qualities arising from the crossbreeding of genetically different plants or animals. Also called heterosis. (taken from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language)

Perhaps this can also occur at the human level.
Having an American-born father and a mother of Vietnamese descent means many things, among these a number of benefits--certainly so in the culinary department. I'm leaving the south of France for a while: boarding in a few hours to feast and celebrate Tết, or Vietnamese lunar new year, which lands on February 14th this year. As you may have noticed, I'm using the subject of this post as an excuse to share with you a bit of what I saw during the time I spent in Vietnam some two years ago. Tết is the most significant time of the year to visit family, which is what I will be doing--this time not in Vietnam, but rather in Little Saigon, located in Orange County, California (about an hour's freeway drive from Los Angeles). This particular Little Saigon--like Chinatowns, there are many--has one of (if not the) largest concentrations of Vietnamese in the diaspora. Thus the celebration of Tết is entered into with real spirit, including the preparation of special foods and cleaning house, metaphorically and physically. In the ten or so days leading up to Tết debts are paid off and homes are scrubbed from floor to ceiling, with particular attention given to the family altar. The Kitchen Gods are sent off with charm, ceremony and hope.
I'm not sure what the Kitchen Gods would make of my own multi-culti kitchen. Perhaps in my cooking they would occasionally recognize a certain looking back and longing for a background that isn't as familiar to me as I would like it to be. In the coming week, I will be trying to make up for lost time.

09 February, 2010

Tasting the Cevennes.

All landscape photos courtesy of http://www.oignon-doux-des-cevennes.fr

The building blocks of the local cuisine, here where I live, are simple and hearty: chestnuts; small goat cheese rounds known as Pélardons; dark, mysterious-tasting honeys from the local chestnut, rosemary, heather and pine; wild mushrooms (especially cèpes/porcini, chanterelles, pieds de mouton and morels); game such as wild boar and line-caught trout--and the oignon doux des Cevennes, or sweet onion, named for the region and benefitting from its own AOP (Appellation Européenne Protégée), the EU version of the AOC.

One of the most common autumn sights are farmer's stands, which cluster on the central village place during sun-kissed market days and otherwise along the two-lane roads, where they are rather casual arrangements of plywood thrown together and groaning under the the collective weight of apples, squash, pumpkin--and sweet onion. I could not imagine my cévenol kitchen without the permanent company of at least a dozen of these genuinely sweet, creamy white root vegetables, which are grown across the Cévennes on its terraced hills and steep mountain faces.
A long-standing house favorite is an onion quiche, made with just enough egg and milk to hold together a lavish amount of goat cheese and gently caramelized onion. As with soups and stews, quiches improve if allowed to mellow overnight, so this is an easy, make ahead recipe (even if there's a lot of text here). I generally use a store-bought, rolled round of pastry crust, the quality's quite reliable in France. I have been known to use more delicate pre-made puff pastry as well. I used to make my own crust from scratch and store it in the freezer half-rolled (really!) but with my freezer space at a continuous premium (no American-sized refrigerator/freezer anymore, I've gone native). In the interest of time, etc...without further ado, my groan-inducing tart. The secret is the sufficient quantity and cooking down of these delicious onions. They can of course be substituted with any sweet onion, such as a Vidalia. Ideal for a weekend lunch or light dinner when served with a green salad dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette and crumbled chestnut.

I'll add an accompanying shot of the tart once I have made Thursday night's dinner and photographed it. Promise. (Eventually.) [See?] Tarte au Pélardons et l'Oignon Doux des Cévennes/Cévenol Onion Tart

1 refrigerated pastry crust
enough whole onions to tightly fill the intended large saucepan in a single layer (4-8)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon of dried marjoram or oregano, crumbled
3 organic eggs
3/4 cup organic milk
3/4 cup loosely packed pélardon or other goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven 220C. Unroll pastry, place in large tart pan and prick with a fork. Tear off a large sheet of baking paper or aluminum foil, lay on top of crust, fill to rim with dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Place in oven for 15 minutes, or until edges are just golden. This is called baking blind. Remove from oven, reduce heat to 180C, remove foil and beans. Place crust in oven again a few minutes longer, just enough to partially bake the bottom of the crust, but not so much that it inflates like a balloon. If you get distracted and this does happen, quickly remove and prick with a fork to deflate. Be careful, the steam escaping will be quite hot! Set the crust aside.

While the crust is baking, chop up the onions. If you wear contacts, be sure you put them in beforehand, as this is the best way to avoid weeping over your work...You will find yourself with a rather daunting pile of onions, but don't worry, this will reduce as you cook it. Once done chopping, quickly wash your hands to try and remove as much as possible of the lingering, penetrating odor.

Heat the oil in a large, high-rimmed saucepan, add the onion and saute over medium heat, stirring periodically so that the onions make an even sizzling sound, but don't allow them to brown. They will become transparent--keep going. Crumble the teaspoon of marjoram over the pan, salt (about 1 teaspoon) and pepper generously. After about 30 minutes (haven't ever actually timed it), the pieces of onion should be paper-thin, pale golden and almost sticky with the now-viscous liquid. The onions should have reduced in volume by at least one third.

While the onions are cooking, crack the eggs in a mixing bowl and add the milk. Add the crumbled cheese. Stir in the slightly cooled onions, mix thoroughly, and pour the mixture into the partially baked crust. Slide into the oven and bake for about an hour, or until the tart's surface is evenly browned. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before eating (if you get impatient and slice it too soon, the filling won't hold together very well--I know: I've tried).

05 February, 2010

Pulling something holy out of straw.

While out driving, I noticed that the vignerons were out in force these past couple of days, taking advantage of the clear weather to carefully prune the vines. They and their workers must do this with real care and precision: if the time-consuming prunings aren't done properly (i.e. dans les régles de l'art) the harvest for the year can be lost.Having pruned my birthday cake of its (many) candles, I've remained in a celebratory mood, so I decided to open two half-bottle-sized beauties that had been quietly improving in the cellar.
Vin de paille is French for "straw wine", but in my personal language translates to "wine beyond the norm". Intense and quite complex, it is pricier due to the juice yields, which are absurdly tiny because only the healthiest (otherwise there is a risk of mold), very ripest grapes are partially dried on mats of straw before being pressed. Some 100 kilos of the "partially raisined" grapes will result in only about 20 liters of juice.

Because the wine is thus deliberately concentrated, it is stronger and sweeter, which means it can be stored for very long periods of time, and is in fact often aged for quite some time in barrels by the vigneron. This rare wine is found only in the Hermitage and the Jura, with some production also in the Alsace. In the Jura, the (white) grapes used are Chardonnay, Poulsard and Savagnin. The result is a sweet wine that defies expectation, with a luscious but complicated, earthy character that, at its finest, can make time stand still. Seriously mmm--yes, that's very technical wine-speak.The Italian version of vin de paille is vin santo, or holy wine, and it is traditionally made of white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. This wine has actually had a significantly longer history than vin de paille, but can vary hugely in taste from a very dry, sherry style to cloyingly sweet. This is perhaps in part due to the less organized, sometimes contradictory approach of the Italians (wine being, at its best, after all a reflection of its terroir, which includes the people who make it). There is also, I have been warned, an alarmingly broad range of quality among vin santo. Don't allow this to deter you from trying a bottle yourself, however. The one I opened is from Volpaia, and is a well-regarded nuanced, sweet vin santo from the breath-taking Tuscan vineyard of an Italian acquaintance. Volpaia is both suave and of the earth; you sip it and feel the contradictions in the mouth, the viscous depth, the stretched out finish.

If you want to be Italian for an evening, you serve this to visiting friends, you dip almond biscotti (crunchy biscuits) in your glasses (hang the crumbs!) and have a great rollicking conversation about everything and nothing.

03 February, 2010

Candles of a different sort.

It's the day after Candlemas--and it's my birthday! Yes, that's the kind of bonfire you get when you light thirty-eight (already?!) candles.

01 February, 2010

Of candelabras and crêpes.

I love pancakes, from sour cream-topped Russian blinis (not the store-bought travesties) to American buttermilk and oat flour flapjacks drizzled with Grade B maple syrup; from paper-thin Italian crespelle to filled Vietnamese bánh xèo to spongy Ethiopian injera (torn and dipped with the right hand only); from Dutch mini kiddie poffertjes showered with powdered sugar to enormous pannekoeken with all the savory or sweet trimmings; from the dark, very filling buckwheat galettes of Brittany, in the north, to the paler, more refined crêpes, sold at any carnival and most street carts across France. I love pancakes.

It is perhaps no surprise that a day just for pancakes, to me, seems highly logical. In France, February 2nd is la Chandeleur, the day for crêpes. The name is derived from the word chandelle, or candle, as these are lit for this holiday. It is the last of the festivals around Noël, and so this is also the day that the crèche (nativity scene) is put away in the Provence. I wrote last year about some of the other origins, both pagan and Christian, of la Chandeleur.

While I'm on the subject, there's famously also Mardi Gras, whose counterpart in Anglo countries is Shrove Tuesday (from the verb to shrive, or to obtain absolution through confession and penance). Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent (during which, for forty days one gives up something desirable and perhaps even fasts). Accordingly, the rich perishables--eggs, milk, butter--historically needed to be consumed beforehand. Ergo, pancakes.

I have collected, as you might imagine, (way too) many pancake recipes. Friends, family and strangers on the street have been kind enough to share their favorites with me. But my stand-by crêpe recipe is from the Petit Larousse de la Cuisine, which is the starter/standard reference for French cooking. Pff: there's no background story to relate, no whispered exchange of portions or unusual additions, no chance meeting with an exalted chef, it is just a basic recipe from page 972 that has never let me down. If you want to make savory crepes (say, sprinkled with Gruyere cheese), simply omit the vanilla and liqueur flavoring. If you'd prefer a sweeter batter, take a look at Parisienne Clotilde Dusoulier's recipe on her Chocolate & Zucchini blog. She also helped develop a "crêpes 101" page at Martha Stewart's site if you'd like a refresher in pan technique...Happy Pancake Day!
Pâte de Crêpes Sucrée/Dessert Crêpe Batter

For 500g of batter (serves 4 or more, as these are quite thin).

2 organic eggs
10g organic butter (about 1 scant tablespoon)
100g flour, white/all-purpose (about 1 cup gently filled, not packed, please)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2.5 dl organic whole milk (1 cup)
1 tablespoon liqueur, such as rum or Grand Marnier (optional)
1/2 vanilla bean, or two teaspoons vanilla extract (optional)

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Mix the eggs in a bowl. In a separate large bowl, sift the flour and salt then add the eggs. Pour in the milk, thinning it with 2-3 teaspoons of water. Lastly, add the melted, cooled butter and the liqueur and/or vanilla. Allow to rest at room temperature (and this really is worthwhile!) at least one hour, preferably two. Just before using, thin with an additional teaspoon of water.
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