28 June, 2010

I ask you.

Can you picture it? A frenetic week of preparation, gardening duties, picking more black currant (3 kilos' worth off one bush alone!), jam-stocking, liqueur-making, helping out at the village library. Then the weekend, bustling with activity and friends, all the beds mussed with use, the air glowing with sunlight and conviviality. Late starry nights, wine bottles piling up beside the overfull recycling crate, cherries picked and baked, figs trimmed, broiled in a sweet gooseberry sauce and served with a dollop of frothy cream. And suddenly, by the saltwater pool, my daughter approaching wide-eyed with an outsized wasp clambering through the fine hairs on her slim brown arm.

What would you have done? I stood up to rescue her (having recently developed quite an allergy to wasps myself) and watched my (only) camera make a gentle, sure arc from my lap into the depths of the pool. (A long ohhh nooo sounding in my head). The wasp swiftly eradicated--no mercy for insects this time--there was the swift dive into the water and the gentle swaddling of my waterlogged camera, followed by the emergency protocol, hair dryer to the rescue. All this to no avail. Camera: Dead On Arrival. Dried streaks of salty water, like frozen ghosts, trapped in the depths of the Leica lens.

Can I continue to blog without a camera? Is the visual so instrinsic that I should simply hang up a scribbled sign "due to technological issues, closed until further notice"?

19 June, 2010

Approaching the summer solstice.

Any excuse for a party. "Vive les Fêtes de la Transhumance!"
It's that time of year again: with the advent of summer, thousands of Cevenol sheep, goats, herders and their working dogs have made the trek toward the cooler mountain meadows and plateaux. This annual migration is called the transhumance. The migrations have taken place since Roman times, as noted by Pliny the Elder and corroborated by recent archeological finds. Today, the ageless traditions continue--the head ewes get the fanciest bells, and all the sheep are marked with each family's symbol, using a colorful dye. They walk for days, winding through the countryside slowly upward. They make their clanging, steady way through small villages, where the women stand watching in the doorways, broom at the ready to prevent any nibbling of their roses. In some places, it becomes a full-scale party, and a chance to celebrate the old pastoral ways. (The photos above are courtesy of http://www.transhumance.org/).Some of the herders lead their animals past my gate, as you can see in the photo above, which I took last year.Using wool from local sheep, the kids made a felt wine cooler for Father's Day (we've got some leeway, as he's only due back later in the week). You can see an armful of shorn, 'raw' wool in the photo above. It's even softer than it looks...
...and here's Daddy's gift for being Daddy. Pretty nifty, don't you think?
We're also busy harvesting the raspberries and black currants. Some berries are macerating in sugar overnight, and will soon be converted to jam and slathered across warm bread, or swirled into a bowl of homemade yogurt.
There is such a bumper crop of black currant that I will once again make some liqueur, or crème de cassis. I have discovered that beyond the classic kirs and other cocktails, it makes a sumptuous flavoring agent for sorbets, cakes and dessert sauces.
Now it's just a matter of time before the cherries fully ripen (darn delayed season and missing sun!) and the blackberries come into their own...mmm, blackbery crumble, blackberry cobbler, blackberry jam, blackberry everything.

17 June, 2010

Keeping it simple à la campagne.

For anyone keeping track, it's summer 2010 and so far we share home and garden with:
- a 35 kg dog (avid hobbyist lizard hunter);
- two rabbits (who don't get along);
- two guinea pigs (who do);
- two kitchen goldfish (blub blub); and
- six horses (our environmentally friendlier, self-propelled mowers, on loan from our neighbor, so technically not ours).

Sound complicated? We may also be acquiring a few sheep, said to be more efficient, all-purpose mowers (I managed to turn down the offer of a pair of donkeys). And then there are the chickens, who are the only ones who actually produce anything beyond, well, manure.
Right now, there are three hens (Domino, Blackie and Fluffy), a rooster (with a name so silly I can't bring myself to type it), and three (yet unnamed) no-longer-chicks. I don't yet know whether they are boys or girls. Girls will be able to stay, boys not so much. No chickens we've named will be going in our pot though; I'm not a farmer--I'm not even a country girl by upbringing (plus I'm not hungry enough). In the meantime, boy, do the girls ever make some fine eggs, with orangish-gold yolks.
Blackie, a Marans chicken, lays torpedo-shaped eggs so narrow that the yolk takes up all the middle space.Fluffy is our absurdly soft, gentle Faverolle, who can be seen stretching her neck for a better view below. There are always shifting politics in the henhouse, and at the bottom of the totem pole, she has taken to laying her eggs in the grass, so egg-gathering has become a proper egg hunt, to the immense satisfaction of the kids. But along with all this convoluted animal busy-ness, I am periodically faced with an overabundance of eggs. (A dire problem, non?) One very simple, very French solution--just right for a warm weather lunch--is salad. I'm not referring to a lavish salade composée covered with toppings in every color of the rainbow, nor do I have the minimalist side salad in mind. I'm talking a robust yet uncomplicated salad liberally scattered with organic lardons (small chunks of bacon), sliced or poached eggs, with a nicely mustardy dressing.

It may seem superfluous to offer directions for something as basic as dressing, but that's just it: everyone should have a from-scratch favorite. The kind of taste-enhancing sauce you can nearly make with your eyes closed. I almost always go by the 3 to 1 oil to acid ratio, and this is my everyday, go-to dressing. You can use my version to refine or develop your own standard version. Let's see, a modest glass of the house white, a baguette and a small cheese plate on stand-by...and mmm, you're in like Flynn.La Sauce Maison (The House Dressing)

Makes more than enough dressing for 4 meal-size salads.

generous pinch of salt
a bit of fresh-ground pepper
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 scant teaspoon (liquid) honey
2 tablespoons good balsamic or sherry vinegar, or fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil, or walnut oil (or--more hedonistic--bacon fat from the just-cooked lardons, but then add a touch more mustard)
4 tablespoons mild vegetable oil

a squeeze of mayonnaise
a few tablespoons of freshly chopped herbs, such as tarragon and chives/chive blossoms; mint, basil, cilantro....

Stir together the salt, pepper, mustard and honey in a jar (one with a tight-fitting lid). An old jam jar is good. Add the vinegar to the mustard and honey paste, and stir to dissolve the salt (the salt won't dissolve if you add it after the oil--not the end of the world but it does add incrementally to the final effect). Pour in the oils, any fresh chopped herbs, and seal and shake as if your entire well-being depended upon a decent emulsion. Taste and adjust with a bit more mustard and pepper as necessary. Wait until the last possible moment to add the sauce to the lettuce. Do make sure the washed greens are bone-dry before dressing (after the salad spinner, I roll the lettuce up in a clean kitchen towel to absorb the last microdroplets).

15 June, 2010

How to make a man cry.

Okay, I may be slightly exaggerating the impact this dessert can have, but men at my table have been known to wax rhapsodic (and at length) over it. There was`probably a little mist in the eyes, come to think of it. I have been making it for years, after first tasting it at the award-winning restaurant The Inn at Little Washington, and then later happily coming across chef/owner Patrick O'Connell's version in one of my more splattered cookbooks.As raspberry season is in force even in my late-blooming garden, seems all the more timely to give this mascarpone-rich recipe a whirl. Do take the time to strain the coulis, as it's a bit of a crunchy, seed-filled disappointment otherwise. Of course, if strawberries or blackberries are closer to hand, use those for the sauce instead (I still love raspberries the most in this dish).

Since the creamy part of this very easy recipe is positively sublime just as it is, I haven't altered a thing, not ever. It remains fully Mr. O'Connell's version of the French classic. Having said this, I don't own any heart-shaped, perforated porcelain dishes, which the recipe traditionally calls for. I simply place a piece of cheesecloth in one of my smaller sieves. The love is there, even if the heart-shape isn't.

My plan is to make this with the kids for Father's Day. We're celebrating later, because the parent in question is currently AWOL, but once he's back we'll present this (with a flourish and a flurry of hugs). And I'll take a photo, to share with you. To begin with, here's the cream and mascarpone mixture just getting ready to overnight in the refrigerator.

Coeur à la crème avec son coulis de framboises (Coeur à la Crème with Raspberries)

by Patrick O'Connell, Chef and Proprietor
The Inn at Little Washington

"Coeur à la Crème is an old French concoction that is both earthy and elegant, rustic and dressy — appropriate for any occasion. It's a wonderful complement to whatever summer berries are in season. This dessert is served at The Inn to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. It can be made in less than five minutes and never fails to knock em' out — even more so than an elaborate cake that took two days to execute.

One large (16-ounce) or four individual (4-ounce) perforated heart-shaped ceramic molds lined with cheesecloth will be needed to create this dessert. The perforated molds allow the excess liquid, or whey, to drip through the cheesecloth, leaving the delicious "heart" of the cream. Coeur à la crème molds are usually available at kitchen supply stores."

Serves 4

8 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Chambord or other raspberry liqueur, such as creme de framboise
1/2 cup sifted confectioners' sugar

For raspberry sauce
1 pint fresh raspberries
2 tablespoons "superfine" granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

fresh raspberries
mint leaves

Cut a piece of cheesecloth into four 6-inch squares. Dampen and wring out lightly. Press one square into each of four perforated heart-shaped ceramic molds and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, whip the mascarpone cheese, 1/4 cup of the cream, the vanilla, the 1 tablespoon lemon juice and the Chambord until thoroughly blended. Refrigerate.

In a small bowl, whip the remaining 1 cup cream and the confectioners' sugar until the cream forms stiff peaks. With a rubber spatula, fold the whipped cream into the chilled cheese mixture in three batches. Spoon the finished mixture into the prepared molds and fold the edges of the cheesecloth over the tops. Lightly tap at the bottoms of the molds on the counter to remove and air spaces between the mixture and the molds. Refrigerate on a tray or baking sheet a minimum of 3 hours (or overnight).

Meanwhile, make raspberry sauce:
In a blender or food processor, purée the raspberries, granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Taste the sauce for sweetness and adjust the sugar or lemon juice as needed. Strain and refrigerate.

Assemble and serve:
Unfold the cheesecloth and drape it over the sides of the molds. Invert each mold onto a serving plate. While pressing down on the corners of the cheesecloth carefully lift off the mold. Smooth the top with the back of a spoon and remove the cheesecloth slowly. Spoon raspberry sauce onto the plate around the heart and garnish with fresh berries and mint leaves.

11 June, 2010

We interrupt the usual programming...

Over coffee this morning, I read this. The (latest) estimate is that the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez (i.e. over 40 million liters) is being leaked into the Gulf of Mexico every eight to ten days. The spill is projected to continue into August. This below, this is what is happening at this very second.

And Tony Hayward, CEO BP (Mr. the-spill-is-"relatively tiny"-given-the-"big ocean")? Just like you, this guy below "wants his life back" (photo by Steve Riedel).

What are you going to do, dear reader? What do you think BP should do? Should the US government require BP to withhold payment to its shareholders until this mess has been cleaned and paid for?

PS: Since I wrote this last week, the estimate of oil leaked per day has doubled.

10 June, 2010

Baby birds, berries and blossoms, oh my.

In my house, even the cactus goes giddy in spring. This modest little mound of cactus was letting it all hang out, with a improbable total of seven flowers. Before, during and after the vernal visits of friends and family, I'm as seasonally affected, making every effort to take advantage of the produce and fruits on hand. The asparagus are tiptoeing their way from center stage, which makes me wish I'd made more of last night's soup, a velvety crème d'asperge inflected with few drops of lemon. But of course, for that sort of thing, I'd require a lot more freezer space than I actually have. I may be the only person I know of in the countryside who does not have a deep freezer. (Sorry, a bit off-topic--a bit bitter.)

Coming into their own just as the local asparagus become harder to find are the strawberries. (I know, this year, everything's delayed by a couple of weeks). If you live in France--or even if you're simply visiting--do keep these three names in mind: Mara des bois, Charlotte and Gariguette. Whether you buy the plant or the fruit, they are your one-way ticket to strawberry nirvana. All three are coveted for their particularly rich berry scent and are exceedingly sweet. In a market, they're the priciest, even though their fruit are quite small when compared to the jumbo industrial, scentless types.

Using garden Charlottes and some Mara des bois--all picked by moi while awaiting the masses of truly wild strawberry plants in the meadow to bear fruit--I've already made a couple of batches of strawberry ice cream. Without actually following a set recipe, I taste test my way along, but I generally come up with roughly the following: about three or four cups of smashed berries, to which I add about 1/4 cup cream, around 1/2 cup condensed milk, a couple of tablespoons of French homemade blackberry liqueur (to deepen the berry flavor and prevent the overhardening of the ice cream) and finally, about a tablespoon of fresh lemon or lime juice. After a few whirls in the ice cream maker, it's unadorned happiness in a bowl, the kind of pleasure that makes you feel like climbing a tree just because it's there.

I also made some sorbet, which I should really take a picture of before it's all devoured: the colour is fairly spectacular. Again, I felt my way through the process, adding a lemon-mint syrup I'd made, the blackberry liqueur, some fresh lime juice, and so on. I find that true strawberry taste is beautifully amplified once additional acidity (whether from lemon, lime or good balsamic vinegar) and some delicate complementary flavors are added to the mix. [Insert allusion to back-up singers making the song here...]
I've some jam-to-be macerating overnight as instructed in the divinely inventive Miss Christine Ferber's recipe for Strawberry Preserves with Black Pepper and Fresh Mint (thank you so much for sharing, Clothilde!). Christine hails from a baking family in a tiny village in the Alsace, but has become known the world over for her jams, which are quite simply perfect and sometimes rather startling (rose water, raspberry and lychee, anyone?). Within France, she is known as the jam fairy. It sounds less dumb in French, honest. She has published cookbooks, a number of which are available in English.
Finally, I've also made some strawberry syrup, in anticipation of tea cakes (as in drizzling over) and perspiring glasses of lemonade just sitting around positively yearning for a ruby drop or two to give them that rosy summer glow. I think of lemonade because of course my lavender's begun blooming now, which means a whole host of other culinary possibilities beyond lavender-scented lemonade...In the meantime, check out this quartet of baby wagtails (you can just see some of the distinctive yellow coming in on the tail and side of the chick on the left). Their mother decided make her nest behind a pot of mauve and cream ganzia. I had to switch pots while she was gone from the nest, as otherwise I would have been showering her and her brood rather regularly. They look goofy and awkward now, but they'll soon be ready to fly. I hope to catch the fun of those first flights...in between my own assorted flights of fancy in the kitchen and garden.

Update: I saw the little ones for the last time last week. They had lost all fuzz, and were preternaturally fresh, bright mini-versions of their parents, with sulfur-yellow feathers. I made a mental note to take their picture. By the next day, they'd gone.

04 June, 2010

Because I was told to.

I don't always do what I'm told to do. Indeed, I can be a bit of a contrarian. But tonight, in the steady, angled light of the setting sun, someone at my table said: "Now this is a recipe you should share." I thought about the dish. I thought about the crisp, bright springness, its aliveness in the mouth, its relative novelty, and just how blessedly easy it is to make. And I thought yes. It isn't Cevenol, mind you. It isn't even French (although I found it in last year in a magazine with a French name: Bon Appetit). The only thing I did to Maria Helm Sinskey's recipe was up the ante on the almonds and shallot. This is a good side dish paired with poultry or lamb chops, one that actually requires less than five minutes of cooking, maybe even less than four. It uses market-fresh ingredients that are available now. What are you waiting for? Jot down the ever-so-brief ingredient list.

And tell me: do you like it as much as we do?

Mangetouts à la minute (Snowpeas with Toasted Almonds)

Serves four.

2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sliced almonds
250 g snow peas, trimmed and "de-stringed"
4 shallots, minced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Melt butter in medium skillet over medium heat. Add almonds and cook until golden and fragrant and butter begins to brown, stirring frequently, about one and a half minutes. Add snow peas and shallot; sauté until snow peas are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes (taste as you go!). Remove skillet from heat; add lemon juice. Season to taste with salt, toss and serve.

03 June, 2010

Cherries the old-fashioned way.

I missed the annual Pitchfork and Cherry Festival in Sauve, which was this past weekend. No matter, because I still got my hands on some of the first local cherries of the season. It was all I could do not to grab the paper bag of cherries, lock myself away and devour the half-kilo myself. Everything being delayed this spring, growing-wise, the cherry trees in my garden do have fruit, but it still looks more like small olives than berries.

A bag of cherries doesn't go that far if every seat at the dinner table's taken, so I decided to stretch the pleasure by baking them into a dessert. Clafoutis, which I've written about before, is a French classic from the Limousin region (the name is Occitan in origin). It has been around since at least the nineteenth century. While it resembles a cake, in texture it's closer kin to baked custard. The pits are not removed from the cherries, and give a deeper almond taste to the dish, which I sometimes enhance with a tablespoon of ground almonds. This is on my short list of the Easiest Desserts Around, and yet it also gets such rave reviews. Try it, and you'll see what I mean.
Clafoutis aux cerises (Traditional Cherry Clafoutis)

Serves four to six, depending on how many cherry lovers are present.

500 g ripe dark cherries (about four cups)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (or half flour, half ground almond blend)
3 large eggs
2/3 cup whole milk (or half milk, half cream blend)
3 teaspoons kirsch (or two teaspoons vanilla)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 200C. In a blender, combine the sugar, flour, eggs, the milk, kirsch, and salt until the mixture is smooth. Arrange the cleaned cherries in a single layer in a buttered baking dish (they should fit somewhat snugly). Pour the mixture over and bake the clafouti for some 20 minutes, or until the top is puffed, golden and springy to the touch. Once removed from the oven, the dessert will deflate a bit; this is perfectly normal. Best enjoyed while still warm.

01 June, 2010

A change in plan.

A couple days ago, I'd planned to tell you a bit more about Burgundy, and then to share with you a new dessert I'd discovered and fallen in love with while visiting friends there. However, trying to replicate the dessert in question, I found myself at the center of a demoralizing fiasco. Granted, I used a blend of millet and rice flours because I'd run out of regular flour, the oven light went out, and the stars weren't in ideal alignment so maybe all that helped account for the spherical doorstop that emerged from my oven. At least the chickens loved the cake; good thing, as I'd made two doorstops.

I went into the garden and weeded, watered and pruned with a vengeance. I mulled over alternate recipes. I gardened some more. And some more after that. I suppose you could call that productive sulking. As yesterday was Mother's Day here in France and I wasn't in the mood to risk another blow to my shaken culinary ego, I opted for a more forgiving dessert, which I made with the children. The little lemon tree is hunched over with the burden of all its fruit. (I am fairly certain that heaven smells like a lemon tree). It'll soon be time for some lemon marmalade, but for now I had the kids pick some strawberries from the garden and four of the ripest lemons for a classic lemon pound cake, made with unctuous crème fraîche. This recipe allows for substitutions, such as mascarpone instead of crème fraîche, orange or lime juice and zest instead of lemon, and additions, such as poppy seeds (a 1/3 cup should do the trick). This is a rich dessert, as easy to make as it is to enjoy, and just the thing for soothing a bruised ego. Or celebrating spring, and oneself. Quatre-quarts citronné (Crème Fraîche & Lemon Pound Cake)

Serves 10-12 people.

3 1/2 cups flour (not whole wheat)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
2 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
3 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
grated and finely minced zest of four lemons
1 cup crème fraîche, or mascarpone

Optional lemon glaze
2 tablespoons lemon juice, fresh squeezed
1 cup confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven 180C. Thoroughly grease and flour a tube pan, or two loaf pans. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl. In another large bowl, beat softened butter until fluffy. Adding sugar gradually, continue to beat until light and fluffy, scraping sides of bowl regularly. Add lemon zest and juice. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add dry ingredients a cup at a time, just until blended. Add crème fraîche, folding until thoroughly blended. Pour the thick batter into the greased and floured pan(s). Bake for about 45 to an hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Keep an eye on the color of the cake as it bakes: it shouldn't get too dark.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a wire rack, and let cool completely. (I have to write that, but I've never actually been able to keep people from "testing" it while it's still warm.)

If you want to amplify the relatively mild lemon taste, add the tangy lemon glaze. Mix confectioners' sugar with fresh lemon juice until smooth, and drizzle over the completely cooled cake and let the glaze harden.

This freshly picked bouquet was on the breakfast table. Its perfume still fills the kitchen...Happy Day to all the mothers out there.
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