Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pélardon de Cevennes

From at least 100 BC up until some time in the 1960s (this is true!), the Pélardon was a cheese that barely changed at all. It was like many of the little countryside chevres we run into, being produced on small family farms. You know, the kind we find when we follow a hand painted sign which has been hammered into the ground by a farmer next to the road. FROMAGE or sometimes FROMAGE de CHEVRE - The ones that make me call out an abrupt “STOP!” that causes Loïc to pull off on to the shoulder. “Where?” he says. Sometimes we have to make a U-Turn and backtrack because the sign was just a flicker in the landscape, and we passed it by before my brain had a chance to register it. In any case, the Pélardon was at one time one of those really good local goat cheeses that you'd never taste if you didn't happen to stop by the place where they were made. You might find it at a local market, but no where else.

Up until the 1960s, the simple country folk making this cheese in the Languedoc Roussillon had no reason to change a thing, and things were done exactly as they had been done generation after generation. But at a certain time a decade or two after the Second World War, the winds of change reached their little cheese-making world. A stranger from afar arriving on the scene might be made privy to a whole slew of seemingly ceremonious rituals involving the ladling and milking and herding and feeding of the goats and so forth that made his heart ache with the knowledge that the local truck routes and promises from city slickers and tourists and the breaking up of family lands and so forth were destined to end up blowing through this place like so many before, completely destroying something very special.

The farmers of the town of Cevennes decided to pool their resources together and form a co-op. They were being assured by anyone happening though their little corner of heaven that their cheese was indeed superior. A region consisting of a combination of Garrigues, rolling countryside full of aromatic herbs that are constantly caressed by the constant prevalent winds from the Mediterranean, and majestic stony mountainous areas of the Pyrenees, it is the perfect terrain for their free roaming goats to pasture and the only place that could produce the miracle cheese called Pélardon. The particular dose of présure, the single hand ladled dose of fresh un-pasteurized goat’s milk skimmed and strained of its whey to make each cheese, everything seemed to be just naturally falling into the making of these little golden palettes of tangy creamy goodness.

Within the next decade, groups of people that they call the “néo-rureaux” arrived on the scene. Like the new wave filmakers, who were making films that were more film like than ever before, and the chefs throwing themselves headlong into a new cuisine, the cooking that tasted more like itself than ever before, the “néo-rureaux” sunk a whole lot of effort into studying carefully the existing ancient process and standardizing it, introducing the cheese for the first time to the various markets in France. They saw to it that the cheese stayed just the way it was, did not alter process in any way, resisted intensification of production, kept it rare, and sent it out, where they knew it would be received with resounding success and almost mythical status.

What is in a name? Money. Suddenly, out came a whole new series of new cheeses from everywhere but the place it came from, cheeses that mimicked but never did justice to the Pélardon, coming from all over the place. By the time the 1980s came around, a whole new young bright eyed generation of cheese makers fresh from the new industrial agriculture schools began to up their production of goat milk by expanding the size of their herds, utilizing new methods of intense farming, animal raising and feeding to multiply production and reduce costs. It became clear back in Cevennes that the goose that laid the golden egg was going to die if something wasn’t done to maintain a certain quality in the name Pélardon. The original co-op and various local producers, about 100 in all, created the Association for the Protection of Pélardon Cheese.

In 1989, the decision was made by the people who had formed the association to apply for AOC status of the cheese, mainly to set clear borders around the original cheese-producing region, excluding all competing fake Pélardon producers. The negotiating process wasn’t clean. Of course there were cheese makers large and small, some with big money behind them that claimed that their family livelihood was tied up for generations in the production of this cheese, etc. and the whole process of even defining the areas where the cheese could be produced was quite a messy one. Setting AOC rules on production was difficult enough, but they finally pulled something together and in 1993, an initial request for recognition was forwarded, to be accepted a year later. It wasn’t until four years after that that the final geographical zone of production was finally established, and finally in the year 2000, the AOC was awarded.

What are the rules? Some of the more important ones are translated here, all pretty much common sense, but at the same time, when you read them, you realize why the Pélardon we get these days is so delicious.

The milk has got to come from one or a combination of only three races of goat: The Sannen, Alpine, and Rove. The goats can be bred amongst themselves but no other race may be introduced. The herds must graze freely on pastures falling within the defined production area: 180 days a year on the pastures located above 800 meters in altitude and 210 days a year for herds located below that altitude. The producer must possess at least .2 acres of grazing land per goat, or no more than 5 goats per acre of land. The plants on the pastures must be of the type naturally found growing wild in the appellation zone, and feed must consist of at least 80 % of these naturally occurring plants. Supplementation to the feed is limited to 400 grams per liter of milk produced. The Pélardon is made by slow coagulation and drip straining methods, from whole un-pasteurized goat milk. The addition of powdered milk, concentrate, colorants or flavorings is prohibited. The moulding of the cheese must be done by the skimming method. The use of frozen curds is prohibited. The minimal ripening time of the Pélardon AOC is 11 days counting the renneting and they must be turned every two days. The cheeses can be ripened on site or by an affineur located within the geographical zone of production. The labeling of the cheese must be done in the zone of production.

Anyway, it tastes out of this world. Pélardon, please never change.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Punch Mirabelle façon Ile de la Réunion

My friends from l'Ile de la Réunion gave me the formula for making what they call punch, but which is also called le rhum arrangé. It's a very simple but very delicious secret: fruit macerated for 2-3 months in rum, sweetened with sugar. 2 of our 10 kilos of mirabelles went into rum today, and we'll have nice punch maison to serve or give by the time sweater weather comes around again. I will never forget the one time we sampled one each of four different flavors of punch with Sonia and Olivier. We were bumping into lamp posts all the way home that night. Well not really, but we were simply glowing after sampling that punch. It's a miracle I remembered what Olivier said about burning the sugar to make the syrup.

Punch Mirabelle

special equipment: You'll need to crush some pits for this, so get a hammer or a nutcracker that will crack them.

2 kilos or 4 pounds mirabelles or small golden plums
4 bottles (.7 liters each bottle) of white rum
2 vanilla beans
1 kilo sugar
1 cup water
*four 1.5 litre/quart mason jars

Note on the jars: You don't need any specific sized jar, but the bigger the jar, the better. The total volume that your jars should hold for this recipes is 6 liters or a gallon and a half. Once you've strained them, this recipe yields about 4 liters of Punch. The jars must have an airtight seal.

Pit the mirabelles, keeping the pits aside, and distribute the fruit evenly between your jars. For each pound or 500 grams or pound of mirabelles, crush 20 mirabelle pits and sprinkle them into the jars over the fruit. The pits contain a little nut that smells like almond, but it is not almond so don't be tempted to eat it. Add 10 more unbroken pits for each pound of fruit. Cut the vanilla beans into pieces and distribute the pieces between the jars you are using.

Make the syrup: Put about 1/4 of your kilo of sugar into a heavy bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat to high, and watch carefully and stir as the sugar begins to turn brown and melt. Once the sugar has melted, (it will be brown and liquid, and very hot, watch out!) turn down the heat to low and pour in 1.5 cups or 250ml of water all at once, being careful to step back from the pan which will steam, because the sugar is incredibly hot! The sugar will crack and solidify instantly and be stuck to the bottom of the pan, but just be patient for a minute or two and stir and swish the water around with a wooden spoon to melt the sugar. The caramelized sugar will melt readily enough into the water. Stir it over the low heat until it finally all melts. It will take a few minutes, and the result will be a dark brown color with a deep red hue. Add the rest of the kilo of sugar and turn the heat up again, stirring to dissolve the rest of the white sugar in the dark fluid. Bring the syrup to a rolling boil and then remove it from heat. Pour it into a heat resistant large measuring cup, you should have about a quart of caramel syrup. If you don't have a liter or quart, add water to make it a liter/quart, and put it back on the heat, bring it to a full boil, then remove and let it cool a bit, about 5 minutes.

Once it is cool, you can taste it. But don't eat too much. Keep in mind that if you add some cream or butter to this sauce while it's warm, you have rich thick caramel sauce for ice cream stuffed profiteroles or any other dessert that can be served with caramel sauce. Keep in mind also that this sauce, if indulged in too heavily, will take an extra 20 minutes on the bike every day for as long as a week to work off. So keep your wits about you. And don't let your husband see you sampling the sauce, because inevitably he'll want some too and you might not have enough for the punch.

You have already added the fruit, the crushed and uncrushed pits, and the vanilla into the jars. Add rum to each jar until it is filled to about the halfway mark, and then divide your syrup accordingly for the jars you are using. For the four 1.5 liter jars I used, I put 1 cup of syrup into each one. (If you use three 2 quart jars, for instance, divide the syrup and put 1 1/3 cup syrup into each jar.) Top the jars off with rum, filling to the top, and close them with a hermetic seal. Gently agitate the jars to dissolve the caramel syrup. Put the macerating fruits away for two months, strain carefully through a coffee filter in the chinois, removing the fruits and crushed pits, and then seal the Punch into bottles for serving or giving.

If you are interested in maintaining the fruit for serving in desserts, when you crack the pits and remove the nut inside in tact, and don't let the shell get smashed. Once the fruit has been seperated from the pits after straining and bottling the punch, the fruit can be returned to a jar, covered with sugar syrup again, and saved for later use.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Mirabelle Jam, and Preserving Memories

Lise had a little smile on her face when she told us how long to cook the mirabelles, like she was remembering. A thousand images and thoughts were flashing before her eyes as she dictated that recipe. Unless we had a lot more time and Lise had the knowledge that these little details are indeed significant, it was impossible for her to transmit them in a truly instructive way. No doubt, her stove and her particular bassine à confiture, and the fruits they chose to put up at whatever degree of ripeness, were details that could not be fit into the 20 minutes we sat perched on the cast iron garden chairs visiting with her.

To Lise, it was the time spent cooking the jam that counted, because their big copper pot was just a gleaming visual detail in her memory, and how hot the enormous ancient coal fed stove would get in the Grande Cuisine was only relative to the other sense memories that were coming to her mind and giving the rich tone to her voice. Indeed these details are all parts of the jam making process, and need to be understood. Many of them are best learned at the stove, and cannot be explained otherwise. Something very important to to know about jam recipes is that the ones that give approximate times to cook are coming from the minds of people with memories that haven't been fully translated to words.

Lise has stories to tell, lots. I hope Sebastien takes the time and energy to sit with his grandmother and let her know clearly that he is interested to hear them. Before we left, she reminded Aude that she would have to bring back the basket they had taken from the shed after they were finished with it. "Well of course!" chided Aude.

"That basket has a story", said Lise. My ears perked at that and I repeated: "A story?" This prompted a clue to something very big, but only briefly recounted by Lise. The basket was woven by a German soldier when he was kept prisoner in the chateau before they signed the Armistice. The soldier was friendly with the Polish cook they had working in the kitchen. They managed to communicate, with some common language and he spent a great deal of time with her. He wove the basket for her. There was Aude, standing there with that basket full of mirabelles, radiating a story.

We do small batches of jam and jelly, different flavors throughout the year like rhubarb and strawberry, whatever fruit is in season or available when we need some, always simple flavors, and never souped up with exotic spices, because Loic prefers to keep this particular detail simple. It is a part of his routine, and he likes it a certain way. We make small batches, eat what we cook just afterwards, and rarely do we make a batch that will be big enough to save or give. Times like the Mirabelle Emergency are definitely exceptions.

The fact that every fruit has different levels of natural sugar, acidity, and fiber content is the reason why in addition to boiling the fruit and sugar to a certain temperature to get the sugar water ratio, we also test the stewing fruits to see how they will behave when they cool down and tell when this particular batch is ready. There are many ways to do this, including dropping the jam into cold water to observe the way it falls, the classic French way often described in the of dipping your fingers in cold water and then putting a drop of the hot jam on your finger and observing the quality of the strands it produces when pressed between finger and thumb and pulled apart, (I don't recommend this because nothing is more dangerous and blister provoking than hot sugar!), or the saucer test, which is perfectly easy to do and my preferred method. The saucer test involves taking a teaspoonful of your hot cooking jam onto a chilled saucer and then tipping the saucer to see if it drips. If it gels and stays in a nice bulbous knob on the plate, it's ready.

When a jar of jam is first opened, it is never the consistency that we normally associate with jam. It is perfectly normal for many a home cooked jam that does not have added pectin to be a bit runny and juicy at room temperature. Once you put it away in the fridge it solidifies to the jammy spread we love.

To learn more about basic foods like Jam and home preserves, I always go to the source - the very basic old books that have been around a long time. One of my favorites of this kind that exists now in English is La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange. It is a good reference to read up about the different stages of jam making, and I often refer to it to get tips on particular fruits when I've got some jam to make.

Here is Lise's recipe for
Mirabelle Jam
Yields roughly 2.5 liters of Jam.

2 kilos or 4.5 pounds of Mirabelles
1.6 kilos or 3.5 pounds of granulated sugar

Pit the mirabelles and pour the sugar over them, then lightly turn the fruits with a spoon to coat all of the fruit. Let this sit in a covered bowl overnight. The fruits will release a good amount of juice. The next morning, in a large pot, bring the sugared fruits to a boil and cook until it reaches 220F, stirring occasionally to keep the fruit from burning. Starting at 219F, use the saucer test to see if it will gel, and repeat every few minutes until it passes the test. Ladle very hot into clean jars, seal, and cool, upside down (to create a vaccume seal).
The jar on the left has already been opened, and the jar on the right has not been opened yet and features its vaccume seal.

If we give a jam for ready eating right away, we just label it with the name of the fruit, but if we heat treat the jars for saving, the name of the fruit and the date goes on the jar.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Mirabelle Emergency

We got a call from Aude & Seb asking us if we would come out and help save a tree. Something happened this season (the canicule in July?) and one of the old trees in the orchard behind the chateau produced an insane amount of fruit. The branches of this tree are so laden with ripe fruits that two large branches have actually broken from the weight, and more are at risk. They needed people to come and help relieve the tree of the weight.

I set a writing project aside and Loic re-arranged some of his work, and we headed out with a fruit palette and my shopping basket. When we arrived, they were waiting there with Lise, Sebastien's grandmother. She had a neck brace on, apparently she strained her neck while picking fruit. Aude & Sebastien led us up through the orchards (I grabbed a couple of apples along the way, as seen in the basket). When we neared the tree, a sharp odor of vinegar hit us, and I actually felt as if this old tree was in distress. The broken branches lay where they had fallen, still alive, clearly some fruit already rotted but many mirabelles still fine. Bees swarmed everywhere.

The sight that awaited us of the actual fruit was awe inspiring, the fruit on the branches reminded me of peppercorn pods - completely covering the branches.

We had a ladder and in a few minutes we had picked enough to fill both receptacles completely. They were guessing the number of tons of fruit that were left on this one tree.

We sat and visited for a few minutes and Lise gave me her proportions for Mirabelle jam, the one her family has made with these particular fruits every year.

Mirabelle Jam (as dictated by Lise)

For every one kilo of Mirabelles, use 800 grams of granulated sugar. Pit the fruit, and add the sugar, put it in a big bowl, and let it sit overnight. This will produce plenty of juice. The next morning, cook the fruit down for 20 to 25 minutes (I'll add that to make jam the best temperature to cook it to is 220F) and put it directly into jars, seal, & sterilize.

Lise laughed because she said that just the other day she heard an interview on the radio with the fruit growers in the Lorraine, the traditional Mirabelle producing region, who were all sad because this year's crop did not yield as many fruits as they had expected and hoped for.

We got the fruit home and Loic weighed it. 20 pounds. Oh Lord, how am I going to deal with all this fruit? We can give some of it away, and Jam is one thing, but there's only so much jam a person can put up before they become a nuisance pushing jam and fruit on everyone.

Not to mention the fact that I have a good number of peches de vignes I was planning on using before the mirabelle emergency happened.

I remembered a series of excellent dinners I shared with a friend, her husband is from the Ile de Reunion. His aunts and uncles come to the mainland every so often and before they arrive, they send ahead a huge package full of various flavors of home made "PUNCH". This was a delectable treat, served over ice on the terrace of their apartment. It is fruit along with its pits long macerated in Rum Agricole with a good dose of sugar syrup. When I asked him if there were any secrets, he said that for a successful "punch", you must burn the sugar when making the syrup. So with a few kilos of these mirabelles, I will burn some sugar and make some Punch. This will also make good giving at the holidays if it tastes good.

Otherwise I have a sheet of fruit drying in the oven overnight, Mother's suggestion. These will make good snacks when we're out biking. Our oven has a fan to keep the air circulating and we're leaving them to dry overnight. I am drying the fruit at 75C, 140F. It will make nice little mirabelle prunes. I wonder, should I salt them like I had in China? I loved the salted prunes my office mates shared with me in Beijing. Perhaps I should have dipped them in a salted brine before drying them. If these aren't sucessful I can always try another batch! I have a Chinese friend coming over and maybe she can help me decide what to do with some of these.

The remaining recipes I've scrounged up are:
Liqueur de mirabelles (done with eau de vie)
Tarte aux Mirabelles
Compote de mirabelles
Gâteau lorrain aux mirabelles
Tôt-fait à la mirabelle
two recipes for Pork and mirabelles, one a terrine and the other a roast
and Magret de canard with a mirabelle sauce.

Time to get cooking and maybe add some recipes to the notebook.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Médaillons de Nougat

The Vin de Noix is coming along quite nicely, having taken on its peppery flavor that will soon mellow to a fortified smooth nut flavored wine. As I have mentioned before, it is a must when making home aperetif drinks that you taste along the way to make sure you understand the power of the fresh green walnuts of early summer and the spices, and their evolution to the final product. This year's batch will not be ready for straining and bottling for another month, but it already tastes very delicious and if I didn't know better, I'd strain and bottle it all immediately! But we know the possibilities, so we wait. This does not stop me from snagging a tablespoon or two for some peppery nut nougat!

This week I prepared a blanquette de veau, which called for an egg yolk enrichment of the sauce, and I had 2 egg whites leftover. Did my idea for a blanquette de veau come from my new candy thermometer, or did the idea for the candy come as an afterthought from the blanquette? I don't really know, since my conscious mind was indeed hankering after a blanquette without a thought to nougat, and only after the evening I served it, with the egg whites and sunny skies, did I break out the kitchen notebook to make some médaillons de nougat. Some dishes are reciprocal, blanquette and nougat for example. For les gourmands, that is.

This candy contains no fat. Cherish the thought! Make this candy only on a dry day.

Médaillons de Nougat

Makes about a pound, or 500g. of candy.

2 cups of granulated sugar
1/2 cup glucose or corn syrup
1 cup water
a pinch of sea salt
2 egg whites, room temperature
4 tablespoons of vin de noix at its peppery stage
1 cup ground nuts, any kind
4 drops green food coloring (optional)


Note: This candy uses the same method as divinity except that you don't beat the candy as long at the end so that as you dollop it onto waxed paper, it flattens out slighly into medallions.

Heat the sugar, water, salt, and glucose or corn syrup in a 2 quart saucepan over medium heat until it reaches hard ball stage, or 260F. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry, and add the sugar in a thin stream while continuously beating until it has all been incorporated. Add the nut wine and the almonds, and continue to beat with the mixer at high speed. Incorporate coloring, if used. (I use the Moulinex for the beating process, and wipe out the steam from the inside of the lid several times). Beat until it is thick enough to hold it's shape.

Note on the food coloring: color makes a difference when you are making candy. Since I was using the peppery wine, I decided to add green, to make a play on peppermint, which is not there, but which comes to mind a little bit when you eat this candy. You wonder if there is peppermint in the candy and then realize there is not, and get lost in the nuts. It's a nice feature.

Dollop onto waxed paper by tablespoon with space between. Let harden overnight.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Mara des Bois

Strawberries have been in France since the early 18th century, when plants were brought from Chili, by the French explorer Antoine Amédée Frézier in 1713. They were long considered a medicinal fruit to treat rhumatism - recent studies of strawberries indicate that the berry contains trace amounts of acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin, and the fruits are a natural antihistimine.

Our elders, especially ones who lived through the Second World War and have lots of stories to tell, will recount to you near mythic tales of luscious flavorful wild berries that they had in their youth. These days a really flavorful strawberry is not easy to find. Our generation barely knows the intense sweet flavor that was bred out of the berry to favor larger hardier breeds that will endure long transport and an extended season.

In the early 1990s, the Marionnet nursery and growth laboratory developed the Mara des Bois. This berry has quickly become one of the best selling "haute gamme" berries in France, because it brings back memories of the sweet juicy intensely flavored berries of times gone by. Bigger than a wild forest berry, the Mara des Bois still yields the flavor of the forest berry, thus is coveted for plain eating and also by the best patissiers for their creations involving the fresh fruit.

If you travel to France in late August, you will see this breed at the markets. Put it on your list of the things to look out for, and by all means have a taste!

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Road Side Snack

We cruised into l'Ile Barbe on the way home and I filled the basket of my velo with delicious baked treats by and bread by master baker Philippe-Marc JOCTEUR. I had to stop and take a quick pic before devouring this little tartlette right there on the spot.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

La Pêche de Vigne

Vignerons in the Coteaux du Lyonnais region at one time planted a peach pit at the end of each row of grapes. The baby peach plant, delicate and capricious, prey to the whims of whatever was floating in the wind, would be the canary in the wine maker's coal mine - it was the plant that would show signs of any sickness or infestation long before the heartier grape vines would be in distress. La pêche de vigne comes from these peach plants, and is local only to the Lyonnais region. This kind of peach is identified by the deep red color of its flesh and skin and the fruit's thick beige fuzz. Today the fruit is produced in orchards, and through the selective process, fruit growers of the Rhone Valley have come to offer larger fruits than were originally found on the trees among the vines. If you visit the vignerons in the Coteaux du Lyonnais, be sure to keep an eye out for the peach trees found on the grounds of the old estates. The fruit that these particular trees bear is no doubt La Pêche de Vigne, and are the product of several hundred years of local history.

Eating the fruit pictured here, I noticed that there is a whisper of spice in the flavor. A little bit like cinnamon. It could acutally be coming from the odor of the skin, as I cut a wedge and bite it off. I don't think that anyone would notice it unless they were really meditating over the fruit the way I was today, but the little whisper of cinnamon has awakened other little voices that urge me to cook with la pêche de vigne. Loic thinks it is a horrible waste to eat peaches in any form but fresh. I know I can change his mind. What should I prepare for him? My culture features so many home baked desserts featuring peaches. Which will be the definitive one - to win him over?

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Poulet de Bresse and the Mystery Potatoes

There are always a million things to look at between home and the Perrache station. I strolled down the Quai St. Antoine where my morning market usually is and carefully looked at the stall numbers painted on the ground, and the trapdoors recessed into the pavement that held elecrical sockets for the vendors. Passing through, I imagined what it must be like to roll one's shop onto a numbered rectangle and plug it in. It was one of the rare occasions I found myself in that place when it was completely empty and clean. You'd never know there was a market there every day. Not a stain or piece of litter to be seen. I found it a bit strange to see the quai that way. It is just a riverside park with symmetrical rows of trees after all. Funny to think of the magic that a market can add to an otherwise normal place.

I stopped into Mafter's shop and could not resist a new instant read digital thermometer and a tub of glucose, something I have been looking for. Hmm. I sense some candy making in my near future. Of course the candy will be for others, gifts. I resolve not to eat it except for the requisite tastes.

Indeed M. Broyer the Bresse man was at the market and he had a selection of birds to choose from, at the regular price. I got one of the medium sized birds, and decided, once I'd gotten it home, not to roast it on the spit after all because it was too young and the tendons needed some more time and soft heat in order for the meat to let go of the bones. I rubbed the bird's skin with a drizzle of melted butter and sea salt, and put it in the cocotte on a bed of potatoes and shallots, topped it with a few leaves of tarragon, and splashed the potatoes with wine. I covered it tightly and let it roast for awhile. I seared the liver on both sides in the smallest pan I have. Bresse chicken liver turns a special creamy golden color when it is cooked. Loic left to get the bread and when he came back the liver was ready to spread on a warm slice fresh from the boulangerie. Les foies blancs de Bresse are a treat indeed. We see sometimes at the very best restaurants, terrines made with the distinctively colored livers that come only from the Poulet de Bresse. Loic and I shared it on toast as an amuse-gueule before dinner.

The bird was delicious. My only regret was that we didn't use more potatoes. Oh la la. Was it the bird's juices? Was it the potatoes, which I picked up, still covered with dirt, on a whim - just to try? I only bought three, so that's all we cooked. I'm having trouble remembering who sold them to me. When I was peeling them, I noted the firm crisp juicy flesh, they felt special in some way, different from the potatoes I normally use. I'll have to go back and find some more - and this time pay more attention to them. I think it was the combination of these spuds with the juices from a nice long roasted Bresse bird - but I also think that the potatoes were special in some way. If I were to roast a bresse chicken over enough of these babies to soak up all that lovely juice and then make a puree of it I think it could possibly amount to the best pureed pommes de terre - Ever. Now I must think. Where did they come from? Who? They could not have been expensive, I normally don't go for the pricey ones.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Shopping List

We began following a program to increase our fitness level this week by the famed German bike trainer Dr. Lothar Heinrich, of the U of Freiberg department of Sports Medicine. The other day we did some interval training, which while frightening to even think about before we did it, was actually rather pleasurable. Today came the dreaded hill climbs. Anyone who has lived in Lyon can go ahead and cringe - we climbed les pentes de la Croix Rousse from Terreaux to the Boulevard 4 times in a row this morning, without stopping. And we did it the long way. There was a stone faced man sitting by the road about halfway up who watched us pass four times and is witness to our victory.

Suprisingly, the worst part of the whole thing was getting back down again each time. I believe that the residents of the upper Croix Rousse neighborhood while claiming to be such a great socially conscious community, could all do for a lesson in sharing the road with their fellow human comrades on bicycles. Obviously they really didn't have much experience in that area, and tended to pretend we didn't exist, coming dangerously close to sideswiping us along the boulevard, slamming on their brakes as if we weren't there to back into parking spots, nochalantely passing by and then purposefully sidling up to the edge of the road to block our way to interesctions, etc. Then there was the car of not so young boys and their lewd comments (Prince charming, where are you?!) and the 4X4 who laid on his horn before plowing through at twice the speed limit when we were rounding the mountain to go down again. The driver of the downhill bound Number 18 bus was suprisingly courteous, I tip my hat to him.

Loic and I, while eating a very boring but satisfying bowl of mutton stew and steamed wheat grains for lunch, made up a shopping list. He put down: Confiture. I took the irresistable opportunity to take the pen from his hand and cross through the word with a with a flourish. I reminded him that in his audit - um, I mean inventory of the side cupboard on Sunday, the one that included a computerized list indexed on expiration dates, we were enlighted to the jam situation. Thanks to the kind printed reminder taped to the inside of the door, we know that we still have two whole jars of confiture that we must consume very soon: a jar of Rose (as in the flowers) and a jar of Sage (as in the herb) flavored jams (don't ask). Okay, okay! That won't do for your breakfast tartine, honey, I know. Hey, lighten up! Oh, nevermind. I was just joking. Hmm. Tired from the climb, maybe? I could have done worse, actually popped one of those babies open and presented it to you one morning for breakfast, but I didn't, now did I?

I'll be hitting the producers' market this evening at the place Carnot in hopes of finding 1) fruit for some good home-made jam, and 2) a Bresse chicken because it's been ages since we've had chicken. The weather is cool enough to tuck some herbs under the skin of a bird and roast it on the spit.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Fleurs de Courgette Farcies

The recipe I hallucinated having seen in either this month's Regal or Saveur for the stuffed zuchinni flowers was no where to be found. Perhaps it was the SAUPE we ate that caused me to imagine having seen it! Maybe it was in that issue of Femme Actuelle that was circulating among our beach bags. The reason why I liked the recipe was that the stuffing included meat and it looked like an interesting thing to try. After searching for the recipe and not finding it, I thought of my old recipe, the one dating from the first year I discovered the beautiful flowers one August morning a few years ago at my then market on the Rhone quai, over near the University. It is a delicious vegetarian dish that I've already done many times, so it will be better to share with you, since it is an old standard in my kitchen notebook.

Some people fry stuffed zuchinni flowers, but I really was not impressed the effect or the feel of the finished product the one time I tried an Italian recipe that called for that technique. That excursion also covered the entire kitchen in a fine greazy mist that took a long time to erradicate as well - so I won't be frying them.

This recipe involves serving the stuffed fleur de courgette on a bed of tangy savory confit of onions and pepper. The original dish, which I once saw on a French cooking show (I used to watch it daily with dictionary in hand in an effort to improve my listening comprehension in French) called for a few more steps and which eventually made a sauce finished with peppers and heavy cream. I eventually eliminated the cream because I have a fundamental aversion to cream and pepper mixtures in sauces, to me cream cheats pepper and dulls it. When I see a red pepper coulis, for example, one that tops a spicy grilled red snapper fillet, and I see anyone muddy the clear and delicate flavor of red bell pepper with heavy cream without thinking to what that does to the flavor, I say: Hello? Did you taste this without the cream before you made that decision?

Here's the old tried and true recipe. I would like to point out that this recipe is flexible. The point is to stuff the flower with yummy combinations of delicate and delicious things which will be heightened by the acidic flavors below in the confit of peppers and onions, but it is under no circumstances an exact science. I will give you the precise recipe of what I prepared today but please don't feel bound by it.

Fleurs de Courgette Farcies
Serves 2 as a main dish and 4 as an entree or light lunch dish.

What you see here is everything that went into the recipe, except salt and pepper.

1 small goat cheese
8 fleurs de courgettes
a little squash (you can use a zuchinni, a summer squash, etc.)
1 red bell pepper
1/2 an eggplant
12 marinated black olives
1/4 cup tomato puree
2 onions
2 cloves of garlic
1 shallot
1T. each of minced basil, sage, and chervil
a few chives
5T. fruity olive oil
salt and pepper

Notes on the ingredients:The best goat cheese for this recipe should be a mild fresh cheese. I normally choose a young Picodon because it holds up to dicing and melts nicely into the stuffing when baked. It should be about 2 ounces or 60 grams in size. As we all know, nothing beats local goat cheese and I know from experience that in many parts of the world there are many great domestic and local goat cheeses out there that are excellent in quality. Use what is available to you, and don't feel like you have to make a trip to a specialty cheese shop for this recipe. My friends in America can also try the great American bleus, or even, if your area produces an acceptable cheddar, some of that.
Zuchinni flowers open in the morning, and close at night. They do this many times on the plant. The female flowers are recognised by what gardeners call the inferior ovary hanging from the plant, or a little courgette hanging from the base of the blossom. The male flowers don't feature the courgette hanging off. The petals of this flower take on a slightly sticky surface when they are trying to close. The consistency of the petal is stretchy and flexible like saran wrap. This helps you to really stuff the flower without breaking it. You should never wash the petals under running water, but you can wipe them and the little courgette very gently with a damp cloth to remove any visible dust. When you buy them, choose clean ones. If your flowers wilt, or close, don't worry, you can carefully pull them open when it is time to stuff them. They will stuff just fine.
You are going to finish your slow cooked pepper, tomato and onion with marinated olives. These should be the kind that have the pits in them. Choose soft ones, and that have lots of subtle olive flavor and don't taste vinegary. If you are not sure about your olives or have no access to olives except olives in a can, omit them from the recipe. They won't add anything to the flavor or texture if the quality is not good.
The herbs you use are going to depend on what you have available. Today I used a little bit of sage, basil, chervil and chives. If you are in a place where you just can't get fresh aromatics at all, I recommend that you use a teaspoon of dried oregano and a teaspoon of dried sage. Remember that dried herbs are much more concentrated than their fresh counterparts. A few leaves of minced arugula are good to add for the texture of the stuffing if you use the dried herbs.

1) Start the Tomato, Onion and Peppers: Dice 1 onion and 1/2 pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a saucepan and add the onion, pepper, and tomato puree to the pan. Saute them briefly over for 2 minutes without letting them brown. Tightly cover the saucepan the and reduce the heat. Let these soften and cook at a low temperature, and add a few spoons of water from time to time to keep them moist while you continue.

2) Make your flower stuffing:
Chop the remaining onion, shallot, garlic, remaining pepper, eggplant, and summer squash. Heat up the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan, and add them all at once. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper and toss and stir them over high heat for 2 minutes, until the eggplant begins to soften around the edges. Remove from heat and set aside. Dice the cheese and mince the herbs, and gently fold them into the warm vegetable saute. Rectify the seasoning (add salt and pepper) while the mixture is warm.

3) Stuff the Flowers: Heat the oven to 400 degrees F or 200 C.
The first thing you want to do is to open the blossom and pinch out the pistil, the thing that has the pollen. It snaps off easily and cleanly. Discard the pistil, delicately seperate the petals, and spoon in enough stuffing into the well of the flower to fill it to where the petals seperate.Fold the petals over the stuffing one after the other, stretching them slightly. Note that when you remove the pistil, the petals will begin to get secrete the sticky substance they do when they close, so you should remove the pistils one by one as you stuff each flower. Place them one by one as you stuff them into a greased baking dish. Sprinkle them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake the stuffed flowers for 25 minutes, checking them at 20 minutes to be sure they don't overcook. If they are overcooked, the fruit will fall from the blossom, so be careful. The zuchinni should be soft enough to easily slip a knife into the squash fruit, but not mushy. When you put them in the oven, remove the saucepan containing the onions, pepper and tomato mixture from the heat and reserve.

4) When the flowers have 5 minutes left to cook, return the pepper and onions to the heat. Pit your olives and roughly chop them. Incorporate the chopped olives into the onion pepper and tomato, and let simmer until the zuchinni flowers are ready.

5) Presentation: Spoon a mound of the pepper, tomato, onions, and olives onto the plate. Nestle two or three stuffed flowers onto the bed, and serve hot.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

St. Antoine Market Lyon - Filling the Larder

Wherin I went crazy on the herbs in anticipation of making my own stash dans le facon de David.
I stepped into a refreshing crisp cool morning today with my basket and camera, full of inspiration and joy that the stilting horrible heat that we escaped from in Lyon when we left is gone. I passed by my neighborhood brocante man, the funny pretty man who supplies me with interesting old dishes and who is always sprouting a different shaped goatee. He turned around and stopped me to give me a kiss on the street, since I was tan and glamourous and all. I waded willy nilly into the market and snapped left and right, not paying much attention to the photos I was taking. There will be time for that later.

The market was a joy to return to, because after exploring the markets in the dry parched south, everything seemed simply bouyant with juicy goodness. I am further convinced that the St. Antoine Market in Lyon is the best in France. My anticipation and joy was further enhanced by the fact that I had the optomistic opportunity to buy - we needed many things including all new cheeses to get the plate started again, and vegetables and fruits all to be chosen at will without a thought to what I might have at home. The berries and late summer produce are simply gorgeous now. I breathed a big sigh of relief to find every herb and green vegetable I desired at my fingertips in full flourishing glory, the dizzying array of berries that have appeared on the scene while we were gone, and the melons and squashes that really complete late summer in my mind.

For Today:
Purple dahlias and Sunflowers, green beans, apricots, peaches, blackberries to remind me of the house on Circle Road, eggs and zuchinni flowers, for which I saw a recipe to stuff them recently, cukes and zukes, a spaghetti squash, some pasta from Torino, fresh farmers cheese, Bleu d'Auvergne, St. Nectaire, St. Marcellin, little apéro cheeses, basil, thyme, sage, chervil, parsley, summer chicory, and one last herb I've forgotten the name of. But it is similar to Sorrel, has little plump leaves, is mainly sold with the roots and only at the market, and is a great lifter for simple salads. The vacation is over but summer will not let go just yet.

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