22 April, 2011

They're back, just as I'm leaving.

I'm readying for a family trip as it is now spring break here in the south;  just a matter now of finding the time to throw the right clothes in a suitcase, to water all the potted plants--and not just most, to give away the eggs, to close the heavy shutters...(I'll be back in the second week of May). 

With still no rain in sight, they're raising the low water-table alarm on the radio but somehow the more seasoned plants aren't yet the worse for it.
This climbing rose's buds are smaller than the nail of my pinkie. In bloom, they open to the size of my thumbnail. The blossoming has begun, but once in full swing it becomes a delicate, slightly fluttery curtain.
The first irises of the season in my garden are these lushly purple ones, who colonized this valley well before we came along...
Even the shiny knoblets of baby figs have emerged, swaying in the fiercely un-spring light. The growth season is accelerating, and the sage in particular has the pedal to the medal. The bush below is already well in bloom, and I've clipped some of the blossoms and tossed them in our salads. I try to trim some herbs before they flower, to keep the plant focused on leaf growth and maximum flavor, espcially those that have bolting tendencies, like cilantro and basil. But that's later.  Right now it's the sage and thyme.  And what to do with all the cuttings?
I've hung lemon sage from the ceiling to dry, and the thyme is spread in a baking pan. Both can be used in hot winter infusions, with a dollop of honey, to soothe a sore throat. Some herb is set aside for cooking, of course, but a lot is given away. 
Flavored oils are another way to make use of that first garden bounty. The oil is warmed (not too hot, or the oil can lose it's extra-virgin awesomeness, get cloudy and have a kind of cooked taste). The herbs are bruised with a mortar and pestle, and the two get to know one another over a week or two at room temperature in a sunny window. This time I added cracked coriander seeds to the thyme oil, and white peppercorns to the sage, but the herb alone can develop deeply and satisfyingly intense perfume. The oil can be used to flavor pastas, soups, as a marinade for meat or vegetables, even a few drops in the salad dressings can make a salad a touch more special. I make more than I can use, and exchange it with neighbors, who drop by with overflowing baskets of vegetables come summer. To make your own, ensure your herbs and seeds are bone-dry before adding to the bottle; this could mean rinsing them in the early morning after picking them, then bottling the oil only in the late afternoon, for example. It's best to keep these oils in the refrigerator if you have the space (because those herbs still contain potentially mold-promoting moisture).  Ideally, you finish your oils within three or four months, before the flavors have faded.
We're a hop and a skip closer to summer: the swallows have returned. I know this because while I was bending over some savory sage shortbread today, two of them hurtled into the kitchen. Look at the long tail on this little fellow.
I'm still planning to freeze some walnut-sage pesto, but in the meantime, a Pélardon and sage shortbread cookie is just the thing to partner with a cool glass of white wine. And maybe sitting on the terrace will lure those rainclouds this way...
Biscuits apéro à la sauge (Savory Sage Shortbread)

Makes about 30 small cookies.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 cup freshly, finely grated oldish goat cheese, like  Pélardon (I used my Microplane)
3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh sage leaves or 3 teaspoons dried sage (I've only ever used lemon sage, which is milder than regular sage)
1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch-thick pieces, room temperature
salt for garnish (fleur de sel or coarse salt)

Combine all ingredients but the butter in a food processor.  Add chopped butter; using on/off turns, process until dough comes together. Mix as little as possible; over-mixing will result in too-crumbly shortbread. Divide the dough in half. Shape each dough piece into log, wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm enough to slice, about an hour. Cover one of the logs with aluminum foil and pop in the freezer, for when last minute guests arrive.

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Slice the remaining dough log into 1/2 cm-thick rounds; place on sheet, sprinkle sparingly with salt. Bake until cookies are golden, with just-browned edges, about 25 minutes. Cool on racks.

19 April, 2011

The judgment.

First there's the band, then there's the burning. 

Actually, first there's the makeup.  Mothers and fathers, dipping into trays of facepaint, turn a few classroomsful of tykes into shooting stars, black holes (!), astronauts, rocket ships and aliens.  All the while, the drumbeats and singing grow more persistent and compelling as the musicians approach the school.
We just celebrated carnival this past weekend here, due to the vagaries of the French school holiday system.  Next year, it'll be a month earlier.  But this year we danced and threw confetti, made faces and took photos of our children under a June-worthy April sky.  The theme was the universe, give or take a planet.
I was intially dubious about the little black holes, secretly pitying them in their dreary garb.  With their dyed T-shirts ripped into long strands, they resembled depressed--perhaps even seasick--octopus.  But of course their teacher had a plan.  The five-year old black holes held hands with the stars and the astronauts, coiling their way through the crowd.  Every time their teacher yelled "Big Bang!" they scattered in all directions, their costumes swirling away from their bodies.  And then they would all return to orbit her beaming, painted face. 
Confetti got everywhere.  Some of the village matrons threw candy into the air. Everyone enjoyed the percussion, with the exception of my son the astronaut, who decided it was Too Much and that he definitely did not like dancing.  But he went along anyway, solemn eyes, paper helmet and all.
Earlier in the week, it felt like high school again, only with a better soundtrack: we parents were creating the two and a half meter high alien, this year's unlucky Pétassou, which you can see here on the float, being hauled by tractor.
An Occitan (Langue d'Oc) word, Pétassou is derived from petaç, which means a strip of fabric used in piecework.  In a few rather forgotten parts of the Cévennes, one can still find a designated village person who capers about at carnival time dressed as the petassou, fully disguised from head to toe and draped in colorful rags.  This person, a sort of comical, teasing bogeyman, has special powers, as legend would have it, to cleanse the village of its year's worth of bad luck and accumulated sins.  This rather pagan ritual has been celebrated--with all sorts of attendant symbolism--since at least the Middle Ages.  Or, as a friend put it "depuis la nuit du temps" (since the night of time).

Today, in many parts of southern France, the ritual of Pétassou has evolved into something a bit more Guy Fawkesian in approach.  An effigy is made, who represents all the things that went wrong with the world in the past year.  The older children shout accusations, point fingers--and condemn him.  This time, one girl yelled about having to leave to go to junior high.  Another blamed the Pétassou for her father being in a wheelchair.  The accusations can be highly specific or quite general.  There was blaming over the war in Libya, the tsunami in Japan--and global warming.  Regardless of the charge, the ruling was the same: burning, no chance for appeal.  Next, the cardboard rockets and other costumes were dumped on the brush and branches, then the fire is lit.  A Pétassou in effigy still feels pretty pagan.
After the bonfire, I tended the drinks table at the school cafeteria.  Really, I should call it the bar.  This was an experience to be filed in my "Only in France file": along with the organic juices and iced tea, I was serving whiskey cokes, wine, beer and eau jaune.  At school. The last beverage is a simple cocktail, pastis on the rocks with a generous splash of water, which magically turns the clear amber alcohol creamily opaque.*  It's an acquired taste, which many around here seem to have fully acquired.  It also makes for limber dancing.
Le pastis, c'est comme les seins : un, c'est pas assez, et trois, c'est trop. (Pastis is like breasts: one isn't enough, and three is too much.) --Fernandel (vaudeville actor and singer from Marseille)
*If you're intrigued, make an eau jaune and add a bit of red Grenadine syrup, to make a cocktail Tomate.  And let all your sins and disappointments be burned away, whether literally or figuratively.

13 April, 2011

Witchery, in and beyond salad.

The plum and cherry trees have gone green, releasing their petals in impromptu, lavish showers that would make a wedding planner weep for joy.  The wisteria has now picked up the slack. 
Defying expectations, the rain clouds stay away.  While it looks and smells like spring, it definitely feels like summer.  Just a couple of days ago, my neighbor's thermometer read 30 C (86 F).  In the flammable south of France, in weather like this, a mind turns to fire prevention.  We have no lack of water, but our water pressure is not superb, and should there ever be a fire, we'd be very hard-pressed to provide the firefighters with the necessary fire-extinguishing quantities.  Which is where this Monsieur comes in.
In the French countryside, no well is dug without a water dowser's sanction. This particular water witch has a sterling reputation, and charm to spare.  Originally a healer with thirty year's experience, he has been finding water for the last twenty years.  Apparently it is common for dowsers to have healing capabilities (the things you learn!).  This Monsieur turned to water dowsing not too long after his name was published without his consent.  Described as one of the 100 most skilled healers of France--you can now find that information online--he was besieged with visitors, a number of whom were sent by 'regular' doctors.  He was busy from morning til night, laying hands on people who patiently queued to see him.  He treated people for everything from the rather mundane, such as plantar's warts, to the more serious, like alleviating the side-effects of radiation therapy.  He would even help people by telephone, like those with serious and not-so-serious burns. 
He explained that it's simply about sensing magnetic energies.  After a while, the work with people became too much for him, and he turned to water, which he found less demanding.  To find water, he uses two copper rods, as well as two kinds of pendulums.  He turns first in a circle with the pendulum with his arm outstretched to determine which direction to go, waiting for the pendulum to begin rotating.  Once he has determined the direction to take, he heads off rather briskly, with his rods held horizontally parallel.  (He stopped using forked branches after the wood kept scraping his palms once it 'responded' vigorously to the presence of water.)  The metal rods turn in toward each other and cross once he passes over a source of water.  Once the point of water is established, he determines the depth of the water using either his wood or his metal pendulum.  
Freshly dug parsnip, carrot and salsify (for with the spring lamb roast).
It's a fascinating process to watch whether or not you are a skeptic.  The way he holds the smooth, round rods makes it unfeasible to turn them by design.  I know this from watching, but also because he had me--and my husband--try it for ourselves.  It's very peculiar to feel the rods move on their own.  With us, they didn't move with such assurance, but they very definitely moved, crossing over one another.  He then set me up with the pendulum.  Nothing happened.  I couldn't get it to move one jot, no matter how hard I concentrated.  Then he laid his steady hand on my arm, and the weighted pendulum started turning in a smooth, wide circle...
Of course he has a good sense of local geology, and his general knowledge must come into play, whether consciously or unconsciously.  He doesn't believe any of this process is magic, but rather a tuning in to the natural magnetic properties of things.  Watching him, though, you do get a glimpse into something that seems not entirely explainable, something that seems--at least a little bit--magic. 

Kind of like this salad, which will amaze you with its lightness, and its lush, addictive blend of flavors.  It will please you here and now, when you're looking for something both delicious and healthy, and well into the barbecue'n'picnic days.  The interplay of crunch and juice, of mint, orange, fennel and mild, pre-soaked onion?  Quite simply bewitching.   
Salade de fenouil à l'orange (Minted Orange, Fennel and Red Onion Salad)* 
Serves 6.

1 scant teaspoon whole coriander seeds
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons Banyuls vinegar, Sherry vinegar or other good-quality white wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red onion
1 large fennel bulb
3 large oranges (navel or other variety with few seeds)
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves

Heat a dry small heavy skillet over medium-high heat, then add and toast coriander seeds, stirring, until fragrant and a little darker, about two or three minutes. With a mortar and pestle, grind coriander to a coarse powder. In a jar, combine coriander and remaining dressing ingredients. (Dressing may be made in advance and chilled, covered).

Using a very sharp knife or mandoline, slice onion crosswise into paper-thin rings, then soak the sliced onion in a bowl of cold water, for about 15 minutes. Next, prepare the oranges: cut a slice from the top and bottom of each orange to expose the flesh, then place cut side down on a cutting board. From top to bottom, cut away peel and pith, then cut oranges crosswise into thin slices. While the onion is soaking, move on to the fennel: tremove any stalks from the fennel then slice bulb crosswise as thinly as possible.  Finally, drain onion well.

Arrange orange, shaved fennel and onion on the serving plate and top with mint. Shake jar of dressing to emulsify then drizzle over salad.

* From Gourmet magazine, February 1995 issue.

06 April, 2011

That first scoop.

I had to make a trip down the coast to Marseille to renew my daughter's passport. Really, it was very little duty and a whole lot of pleasure.  The weather played along, so we had the top down and I turned up the (freshly downloaded) songs I'd listened to when I was about ten years old, and we both sang the refrains at the top of our lungs.  Safety Dance, anyone?  
We had to come during the consulate's opening hours, which meant playing hookie from school.  Luckily, a lovely friend generously invited us to bunk at her place (that first image is taken from her terrace, and my daughter took the second image).
Once the regulation ID photos were taken at the photo shop, the hand raised ("do you solemnly swear...") and the papers signed, we were free to wander the city.  Said wandering of course involved a look-see of the Vieux Port, where locals come daily to buy their bouillabaisse ingredients.  I'm just too soft: the ornately, intricately colored octopus with their ageless, staring eyes made me sad.
After lunch at Le café des épices (at 4 rue du Lacydon, right next to the Vieux Port), which continues to offer a reliable, refined meal, we had the rest of the afternoon wide open.
We decided to climb up into the neighborhood called le Panier, or Basket.  Think of all that climbing you do to get up into Paris' Montmartre.  Same thing in Marseille's Panier.  And same working-class village kind of feel.  In the middle of the Panier is the 17th century edifice built for the city's very poorest, La Vieille Charité.  The four-story hospice buildings encircle a serenely baroque chapel with an egg-shaped dome, considered one of Marseille native Pierre Puget's masterworks. 
I think we could have lingered there all afternoon. We virtually had the place to ourselves.  Everything glowed and time just fell away. 
Since renovated by Le Corbusier, the tranquil hospice now houses a number of municipal museums, including the museum of Mediterranean archeology.  But instead of visiting the museums, we had ice-cream cones at the cafe in the square, it was that warm. Though the nights are still cool, it's been ice cream weather here at home, too.  I've even caught myself sweating in the garden--in my summer gear. 

This was a providential excuse for cracking open David Lebovitz' encyclopedia of ice cream, sorbet and granita recipes, The Perfect Scoop.  As I'm a fiddler, I did make some modifications to his green tea ice cream, one of which was a handful of chopped dark chocolate.  Enjoy! (And Delana, I promise the next recipe'll be light as a feather, in keeping with swimsuit season...)
Glace au thé vert et chocolat (Green Tea and Chocolate Ice Cream)
adapted from David Lebovitz

Doesn't serve nearly as many as you'd think.

1 cup (250 ml) milk
3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
pinch of salt
2 cups (500 ml) heavy cream
5 teaspoons high-quality matcha (green tea powder)
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup (100 g) dark chocolate, fairly finely chopped

Warm the milk in a saucepan with the sugar and salt.  Pour some of the cream into a bowl, whisk in the matcha thoroughly, then add the remaining cream. Place a fine strainer on the bowl and set aside.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks.  Continuing to whisk, slowly pour in the warmed milk mixture.  Pour the egg and milk mixture back into the saucepan.

Over medium heat, reheat the egg and milk mixture, stirring and scraping constantly with a heatproof spatula until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula.  The custard is ready when you can run a finger across the spatula and you can see the trail your finger leaves.  Pour the finished custard through the strainer into the cream and matcha mixture.  Whisk the strained mixture very vigorously to dissolve the matcha.  This can be difficult, but you can always strain the mixture again if necessary.  Chill the mixture completely in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker following the manufacturer's instructions.    
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