29 September, 2010

Golden, and (still) there for the picking.

I can't let go. These days, I'm always looking for them; tomatoes, I mean. I'm pinching back the tomato blossoms in the garden, hoping the tomatoes that have already formed will actually have time to ripen in this new season of reduced sunlight and deepening chill. Bite a garden tomato and you bite into summer. And I can't let go of summer. Not willingly, anyway. The chopped gorgeousness above consists of Délice d'Or, but for yellow you can find your fill with creamy-gold Ivory Egg, the orange-sized Valencias, a handful of Remy Jaune, tiny and sweet as candy (and a more yellowy version of the cherry tomatoes I picked in the top image), pointy pepper-seeming Roman Candle, the faithful Marmande Jaune, the Téton de Vénus jaune (Venus' Breast) and let's not forget the sumptuous, pink-streaked beefsteak, Mortgage Lifter Yellow. It is the prose of the warmer days; don't tempt me to go on--there are well over 12,000 known varieties of tomatoes in nearly all the colors. These are the yellow ones I know and love, in part for their sunny appearance, in part for their sweet nature. Yellow tomatoes are generally less acid, and more on the fruity side. You will love them fresh, but try chopping them up finely and simmering them ever so briefly as Heidi does, and you have a pure-tasting sauce fit for the gods. Rather than going with fresh as she did, I added oven-roasted garlic instead (there's always an oil-topped jar of that in the fridge), to play up that intense tomato sweetness. The sauce is superb served unadulterated over quenelles lyonnaise (an airy, eggy, oval dumpling). Any permutation of pasta will do, of course. If you happen to have other vegetables on hand as I did, then throw in something sautéed, such as eggplant, add a sprinkling of torn fresh basil and just-grated Parmesan. Like me, take the photo before adding the last two ingredients, so you can still see those goldenrod bits of tomato. Actually, I can confirm this sauce is gorgeous in spoonfuls direct from the saucepan.If you did something truly wonderful in a long-ago previous life, you might just know a local producer of Ananas (i.e. Pineapple) tomatoes. This variety redefines tomato-ness. It can grow to a kilo (that's one, single tomato). There are very few seeds, and it's a highly aromatic sort, with a dense, magnificently juicy flesh. And oh, that fine, fine yellow-orange sweetness. So here's my recipe for this, perhaps my very favorite variety of tomato.
Allow the tomatoes to ripen fully someplace warm and bright in your kitchen. You'll know they're ready when hazy streaks of red appear at the flowering ends, and all traces of green are gone. Slice, sprinkle a minute amount of fleur de sel, and drizzle with the grassiest, brightest olive oil you can get your hands on. Afterward, if you're feeling nostalgic for that extraordinary last mouthful, read Pablo Neruda for solace: you aren't alone in loving tomatoes.
Ode To Tomatoes
- Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it's time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.
(Thank you, Jennifer.)

27 September, 2010

Of young horses and old traditions.

The pinkish purple heather is in full bloom, and in places it transforms the ground into an airy, rosy sea. Out and about in that curiously limpid light of autumn, we've been busy foraging for mushrooms in the heather, fields and forests. The nights and early mornings have significantly chilled.At the market, the squash and pumpkin are for sale, alongside the last of the summer harvest. With the change in season come the fall traditions of the Cevennes. We were charmed to be invited to a neighbor's ferrade: fresh air, lots of eating and drinking, just as much socializing, and horses--what's not to love? The horses in question are Camarguaises, the famously hardy white breed that run wild (in now significantly reduced numbers) across the pink flamingo-flecked Camargue marshes. We said yes without hesitation, knowing the lovely people who were so kindly inviting us, and not really thinking through the activity around which the whole ferrade is built: the hot branding of horses.Branding has been practiced since at least the time of the Egyptians to identify (free-ranging) hores and prevent horse theft. Unfortunately, as one might imagine, it causes a good deal of stress and pain to the horse. Camargue horses are born very dark, and only turn white as they mature. The colts we saw, about six months old, were separated from their mothers for the first time in order to perform the branding, which involved one burn on the rear haunch, and a smaller one on the neck. The colts appear dazed and shocked after the brand is applied and the disinfectant dabbed in the wound. The brand, applied correctly, causes a superficial burn and permanently removes the hair.Having been invited for the occasion, I didn't feel it would be either fruitful or appropriate to embark on a discussion about the morality of hot-branding--or the possible alternatives. While hot-branding has recently been made illegal by the Scottish parliament, it is still in rather wide use in Latin and North American horse country, as well in Australia and other countries. The ban in Scotland was widely supported by animal welfare groups, unsurprisingly, but also by veterinary groups, who found the practice causes undue distress and pain. I am planning on asking our neighbor about his views on the increasingly popular freeze-branding, which is just as effective, low-cost, causes little to no pain, and as such can be administered by a single person. I hope to report back a change of approach for next season's foals...

23 September, 2010

Blue Cake.

What belongs at the birthday party of a freshly five year old boy? Pirates and (apparently) abducted princesses, naturally. Candy and golden treasure, of course.

And don't forget the cake.

If you type "blue cake" into your search engine, you'll get responses like this, or this. I'm so far out of the fondant league, it's a bit embarassing. I can't hold my head up among the baking bloggers of this world. No matter, my heart is in the right place, which will get you a long way. The way to this particular boy pirate's heart is paved with chocolate, so I added a swashbuckler on an island, in the middle of a choppy sea. Behold, admire:
When I presented this to the waiting co-conspirators (with a buccaneer's flourish), the reaction wasn't quite what I expected; blame it on the fresh air of the French countryside. The remarks were mainly along the lines of:

- That's a blue cake!

- I've never seen a blue cake before.

- Hunh. Neither have I.

- Neither have I!

- Me neither!

- But what's it made of?

- You put sand on there? [I didn't.]

Then, finally:

- I get the first piece because it's my birthday! [At least my son was willing to go first.]

And then some more:

- But how did you get it so blue? Is the ocean even that blue? [...]

Until a bit of vindication. Sort of:

- Can I have the recipe so my mother can make it too? She never makes blue cake. If you don't have children of your own (yes that is handmade "gold" bullion in the background), you may be under the impression that a children's birthday party is merry, and relaxed. This is not the case.

And this is why you've suddenly reached the end of this particular tale: I'm still recovering.

19 September, 2010

In clover. And Jimmy Choos, too.

After the rain, comes the end-of-summer technicolor. Summer crocus, everywhere. Clouds of pink heather, growing right left and center, including straight out of a rock face, though you can't see that in this image.
And then there's my macerating figs. Some of these, drunk on organic sugar and vanilla, were destined to nestle next to the first foie gras we've had at home since, oh, January-ish. I'm not counting that divine foie gras I had in Barcelona this summer...We're in clover these days: the heavy rains have dissipated, the newly discovered hole in the roof is fixed, and the world's gone emerald green, saturated with the scent of huge, giant swathes--larger than most people's gardens--of blossoming oregano. The little oregano flowers are those splodges of white in the background below. If only blogs had a scratch and sniff option; the scent of oregano at the day's end is improbably magnificent. The excuse to eat foie gras is simple: the inkling of autumn, old friends and good stories. The friends in question are from London. Married 38 years, they are a low-key, unfussy, jovial pair, retired, with a permanent case of the travel bug. They each turned 65 this year. He got her...a beautifully wrapped shoe box. Empty, but for a gilded card. The splurge to end all splurges: bespoke shoes from Jimmy Choo. For this, four separate fittings at Mr. Choo's cosy little atelier in the East End. A rainbow of leathers to choose from, a near infinity of styles to consider. Each foot measured separately with extreme precision. This is, after all, the man who shod Princess Diana. And the shoes? Fit like a glove. Like walking on air. How to feel like a princess...
And what did she get him? A fly-fishing trip (using some flies which he tied himself). In Scotland, on a lovely estate. Without her.
And what does one make for Londoners who've been nearly everywhere? I couldn't help myself. I made curry. The nerve I have, knowing full well some of the best curry in the world is found in London. Did I take a photo? Of course not: in full view of the assembled dinner crowd, my chutzpah dimmed. Will you accept a photo (taken by my daughter) of one of the kitchen goldfish instead? I do hope you'll consider trying this easy, incredibly flavorful recipe, only slightly tweaked from the original, which was taken from Aussie Charmaine Solomon's Complete Asian Cookbook. I decided to share it with you when I noticed the size of the second helpings every single person took at my table. Please keep in mind that this is a versatile recipe, but try it like this at least the first time, and remember: the cilantro is a non-negotiable. You won't regret making a special market run just for those sassy green leaves. I know I didn't...

P.S. Another sign fall is on the way? Our English friends played a friendly variation of conkers with the kids.

Curry au poulet et noix de cajou (Chicken Curry with Cashews)

Serves 4 to 6.

1/4 cup butter
2 onions, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons peeled fresh ginger, finely chopped
3 tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon tex-mex hot chili blend or other spicy blend
6 chicken legs (thigh and drumstick)
1 can diced tomatoes
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup cashews, roasted or raw
3/4 cup plain yogurt

Brown butter in a large, wide heavy pot (cast iron is great) over medium high heat until foam subsides, which should take about a minute. Add chopped onions, garlic, and ginger, stirring, until softened, or about 5 minutes. Now add the spices: curry powder, salt, cumin, and cayenne. Cook another 2 minutes, stirring all the while. Add chicken and cook, stirring and turning to coat, for some 3 minutes. Lastly, add the chopped cilantro and the entire can of tomatoes, including the juice. Bring to a active simmer, then cover and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes to an hour or so. It can continue to simmer at very low heat for longer, the meat will be only the more tender for it. Meanwhile, put cashews in a food processor or electric coffee/spice grinder and process until very fine. Just before you're ready to eat the curry, add the ground cashews and yogurt; simmer gently, uncovered, stirring, until sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes. Serve with basmati or jasmine rice and a sprinkled garnish of freshly chopped cilantro.

Added plus:
This curry, without the yogurt and cashews, can be made up to 5 days ahead. Reheat over low heat, then stir in yogurt and ground cashews. Right now or later, you'll be in clover too.

12 September, 2010

Gettin' figgy widdit.

On any given Sunday in this period in between high summer and the cooling autumn there are still festivals and events galore, with the added bonus that most of the tourists have headed home. The locals come to the forefront, in full eccentricity, dogs in tow. Have you ever seen a three-wheeler motorcycle with spousal and canine seating? I can now say that I have. In Uzes, the event of the day centered around donkeys (purebred, natch, from the Provence) and plants. Free rides for the kiddos, in the hopes of luring buyers for the sweetly curious quadripeds. Buy at least two, lest they get lonely...
The sun is still in force, but the first leaves have begun to drop from the dehydrated plane trees.
To avoid our own dehydration, a leisurely stop for a noisette, before the plant browsing begins in earnest. A matter of pacing, you know.
Then there's day-dreaming over exotic chutneys and jams...
Yes, you read right: clementine and gingerbread, rose petal, apricot/peach/melon, and bananas flambee. So many flavors, so little time to experiment with my own variations...
I was taken by this hibiscus cocinea, purportedly able to withstand temperatures as low as -15 C/5 F. Are you familiar with it? Is it the time I've spent in Amsterdam that makes me think the leaves look smokeable?
If you aren't in the mood for marijuana, how about some "love in a cage"?
This is more my speed, to fill up those gaps as the deciduous plants begin to drop their leaves.I've all the herbs I need at home (or at least all the ones that can grow in my garden). Except garlic, I still buy that. What's more, the figs are ripening beautifully (from the tree the crows haven't been scavenging).After consulting the latest Elle à table, I pick the ripest figs for a quick, sumptuous noonday dessert: figs poached in lemon balm and muscat, which I served atop some velvety fromage blanc. In the original recipe, the figs are served as a dessert soup; I dialed down the sugar and turned up the lemon balm.If you can't find lemon balm, fresh, slightly crushed rosemary would make a charming substitute. Lacking any fresh herbs, you could add a few drops of a good vanilla extract (say a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon) and a few grinds of fresh ground black pepper...The figs can also be served with a good vanilla bean ice cream or a slice of pound cake, with perhaps a smidgen of mascarpone, just to be decadent... The poaching liquid quickly takes a deep blush from the purple figs--and a fabulously figgy taste--so much so that I used the extra sauce to make fig kirs, using white wine. Here's to Sundays that still feel like the best of summer!
Figues pochées à la mélisse (Figs Poached in Lemon Balm and Muscat)
1 kg figs
2 cups Muscat or other sweet wine
100 g sugar
1 cinnamon stick
very generous handful of lemon balm

Having added the sugar and cinnamon stick, reduce the wine by half over a high flame. Lower the heat and add the whole figs and lemon balm, allow them to simmer gently for ten minutes. Clip the hard tips from the figs before serving; slice if desired. May be eaten warm or chilled.

09 September, 2010

In Camisard country.

I’m still offline at home, still trying to get back online, but life goes on. Plans and projects are unfolding as summer draws to a close. The village choir is meeting once again each Saturday morning, after the obligatory wakeup café noisette (expresso with a touch of milk) in the Bar/Café de la Place; I’m the modest soprano in the middle. The local library, where I work as a volunteer, has just received boxes of new books, to be readied for the shelves. I am preparing a yoga class, which I will be teaching at home, beginning a week from now; lots of re-reading of yoga texts, folding myself back into the old familiar positions and loosening up my body and the rest of me in the process. Oh, and that ear infection is finally, truly on the way out, at long last. Hallelujah!
This past weekend I made a new discovery: the Assemblée du Desert. Once a year, in a tranquil oak-filled glade a few kilometers down the way from the Bambouseraie, an open-air Protestant service is attended by thousands, of all ages. This service is really about ancient history.Briefly put: after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, France became wholly Catholic, and full-scale persecution of Protestants was officially sanctioned. The Royalists stripped Protestant Huguenots of everything they had. There were forced conversions and imprisonment and/or public executions of those who resisted and were caught. Protestants couldn’t even be buried in community (read: Catholic) graveyards, having to make do with their own separate plots.
In the rapidly escalating violence, the Cevennes, a sometimes inhospitable and somewhat wild land even today, became by its very roughness the place to which many, many Protestants fled, and from which Protestant peasant rebels, known as Camisards, made their desperate stand. The Assembly takes place next to the Mas de Soubeyran, the Luziers home of one of the most celebrated Camisard rebels lovingly turned into the Musée du Desert. The low-key, surprisingly moving annual service celebrates that complicated Protestant history, and remains an enduring symbol of the outdoor, clandestine nature of religion for many of the attendees’ forefathers. The history marks the character of this part of France, where Catholic churches are rarely found, and locals are often reticent toward outsiders, from whom they have learned, throughout history, to expect nothing but trouble. According to the newspaper, there were about 15,000 (of all ages) present at the Assembly this year...
Thankfully, my relationships with my (Protestant, Catholic and atheist) neighbors have developed in a distinctly more positive, open fashion. It helps to arrive with a pot of something homemade, ready to talk food and garden.

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.
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