Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gigot d'agneau à la cuillère.

    "Leg of lamb served with a spoon" is what food writer Trish Deseine calls this succulent dish in her cookbook Nobody Does It Better...Why French home cooking is still the best in the world. One glance (and you could say the same about English-speaking cookbook writers who live some, or all, of the time in France) and you know that she hasn't Anglicized her recipes for non-French residents. For one thing, Deseine doesn't stint on alcohol.  Gigot d'agneau à la cuillère calls for a litre of white and an optional glass of cognac.
Here's how it looks ready to go in the oven.
    You start by boning a leg of lamb with a very sharp knife and a great deal of care. Watch YouTube videos of how to do this by all means but note that it's not quite as simple as it looks. Fortunately all scrags and tags will get hidden inside once you tie the lamb into a tidy-ish bundle. Next you stud the meat liberally with slivers of garlic before you brown it on all sides. In go the chopped onions, shallots, carrots celery, bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary and thyme, wine and cognac. The pot goes in the oven for seven hours and that, my friends, is it. Take a look at it halfway through if you like to check that the wine level hasn't dropped too far, and top up with water or chicken stock if need be.
     You can indeed cut this deeply flavoured lamb apart with a spoon, buttery mashed potatoes sop up the jus, and leftovers of both, as we found out last night, make a stupendously good shepherd's pie.

One a penny, two a penny....

   Hot cross buns. Hard to find in France so I decided to have a bash at making a batch. Besides, on a chilly, wet Saturday afternoon, I liked the idea of filling the house with warm, spicy, yeasty smells.
   As with any recipe these days, all you need to do is Google the name and take your pick. This time, they were all much of a muchness. I didn't have currants or chopped peel around but I reckoned raisins would do the job and I'd add a little more cinnamon and nutmeg to compensate for the lack of allspice.
   I ended up with one of Delia Smith's recipes because, while I'm not a huge fan of her sometimes nanny-ish approach, you want absolute persnickety precision in measurements and technique with things like hot cross buns.
   Baking has never been my forte and it's years since I've opened a package of yeast, mixed it with "hand-hot" milk and watched it turn all foamy. From then on, I had huge fun, balancing the cassole full of dough near the radiator and watching it well up into a taut little dome, punching it down and shaping it into tidy buns. While the yeastie beasties were swelling up for the second time, I made a dough of flour and water, rolled it out, cut it thinly and--when the buns were ready to go in the oven--strapped them with little dough crosses.
   Here's what we ended up with... one missing because, next to making hot cross buns on a grey afternoon, there's nothing better than eating one, warm, butter-spread and straight out of the oven.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Evil filled croissants...

   My excuse is that the boulangerie up near the rond-point had sold all its pains aux raisins by the time we'd finished our market shopping (but, my conscience mutters, they still had regular croissants, didn't they?).     Anyway here's what we walked away with:
    Proceeding anti-clockwise: One Nutella-filled croissant, flaky, chocolate-y; one almond one with flaked almonds on top and an almond paste filling; and a p'tit crème.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tiles in the Garden.

     The thing about stone is that it keeps going and going. Crumbling walls can be taken apart and rebuilt into houses. Stones, as we know from experience, can be salvaged from the garden and used indoors. Even French roof tiles can have a second life (I meant to take photos but didn't of how friends have used them--very effectively--as wall lights in their bathroom). 
     Curved and narrower at one end than the other, the traditional tile is said to have been shaped over the tile-maker's thigh. All I can say is that they must have been well-built men of remarkably similar physique. 
     I found a half dozen--tiles not men--behind where the chicken house used to be (another example of recycling, it now houses a friend's half-dozen chickens). Inspired by the Spring issue of Marianne Maison Jardin, I've given the tiles another life. 
     You need three, which you simply embed in the soil, then fill with earth and plant.... 

For safety's sake, I strung wire around the top. I also lined the "pot" with a bin-bag (drainage holes punched in its base) before I planted it.
Here's the result. Those tiny shoots are fleurs en cuisine-- edible flowers. I'll keep you posted on their progress.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Oh well, at least I can read about them on-line...

   Reading Restaurant magazine's just-released list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants  at www.theworlds50best.com /, I'm happy to see that three of the top ten are considerably less than a day's drive away.
   At Number Two: El Celler de Can Roca is under three hours down the road in Girona.  Swiped from their web site, this shot is part of the visual history of the cuisine. Xai amb pa amb tomaquet translates as "lamb with tomato bread,"  a variation on a rustic Catalan dish of toasted bread, tomatoes, garlic, salt and olive oil. It's eaten at breakfast and as a snack but I've never ever seen it look this elegant. www.cellercanroca.com
   Number Three on the "best" list, Mugaritz http://www.mugaritz.com/ is near San Sebastien. Very modern Basque cuisine with lots of reviews on-line. Also near San Sebastien is Arzak which holds the Number Eight position. http://www.arzak.info 
   Even less than a day after the news came out, I probably don't have a hope of making a reservation at any one of them any time in the next six months.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Good Life at the Château de Cavanac

    Kate, our daughter, is staying with us so, for a treat, we booked us all into the Château de Cavanac, a few clicks south of Carcassonne. I'd heard good things about this place from my cousin in Ireland and local friends so, after a morning and lunch in the old walled cité, we drove there with high expectations, parked outside tall wrought-iron gates and crunched our way across the gravel into reception.
    The chateau is just plain gorgeous. Each room is decorated differently, and assigned the name of a flower. Ours overlooked this courtyard filled with palms and oleanders.  http://www.chateau-de-cavanac.fr/ 

    Dinner here is the kind of sumptuous meal that makes you glad you don't have to drive home afterwards. A five course event, complete with wine, it costs 42 euros--or a bit under $60 (US, Canadian or Australian--they're all around the same at the moment).
     The long beamed room was already almost full by the time we sat down. A wood oven blazed in the background behind a glass-fronted counter laden with meats and produce. Three opened bottles of wine stood on the table (the chateau has its own vineyard) and seconds later, peach kirs arrived and a basket of small peppery pastries typical of the region. I won't walk you through the entire menu (just click on http://www.chateau-de-cavanac.fr/menuvf.pdf ) and I'll only show you one photo--my first course, one of the four variations on foie gras you could start with.

     Roasted in a wood oven, the lamb was probably the best I've ever tasted, crisp and smoky outside, and meltingly tender. Next came a platter of five different kinds of local goat cheese with a pot of honey to drizzle over them. By the time we reached dessert, all I could cope with was raspberries and cream. A little glass of verveine tea and so to bed.
A look at the vineyards the next morning before we headed home.

Wash Day

   French washing machines are not remotely like North American washing machines. To begin with, they're considerably smaller. Ours holds about five kilos or, to put it another way, two sheets and two pillow cases which you load from the top into a metal drum. You access this by what we call "the jaws of death," a fiendish device that snaps together with the speed and ferocity of a crocodile. I won't bore you with details of the many, many programs we can choose from. Pick coton blanc and we can drive to Mirepoix, have a look round the market, and drive home in the time it takes to wash whites at a high temperature. Normally, we use the lowest, fastest setting.
   After we'd survived an entire winter without one, we realized that we could live without an expensive-to-run, ecologically suspect clothes dryer. Instead, we dry everything on a folding rack, either indoors for part of the year or out in the garden. (We also have a little folding device designed to hook over a radiator or a balcony railing.) Today, the rack was already holding two big table cloths and I had an urge to wash white linen.
   To wander off for a moment, along with "faded denim," one of my favourite fashion phrases is "gently rumpled linen." There's something about--you can't really even call them "creases"--the soft dimples and dents in a linen shirt that captures the essence of an old-fashioned summer. Fields full of scarlet poppies, riverside picnics, sun-dappled woodland glades....et cetera, et cetera.
    So three linen blouses of mine and one linen shirt of his went into the washing machine, came out half an hour later and were soon hanging on the pergola, sandwiched between a rose bush and the wisteria.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Voluptuous Signs of Spring at the Markets

    It really doesn't matter what the thermometer says, March is a dreary month for fruits and vegetables if your aim is to eat whatever's grown locally.  Granted, we can get salad greens almost all the year round but, by now, I've had it with root vegetables, cabbages and apples--especially since the temperatures have been in the mid to high 20s recently--which explains why the first glimpse of these 2011 crops got my juices flowing.  

Mirepox market....Gorgeous amethyst-tipped asparagus.
Just steam and eat hot with butter or cold with vinaigrette. 

Lavelanet market...These opulently scarlet fraises come from near Perpignan, close to the Spanish border. As with asparagus, you don't need to mess about with them. All I do is slice the strawbs, sugar them (just a little) and put a pot of crème fraîche alongside.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Sin of Greediness

    That's what "péché de gourmandise" is French for--and the name of one of my favourite blogs. It's all about food and, as a fellow blogeuse, I have huge admiration for its author who, whenever I look has cooked something new and suitably sinful.
    Thanks to her for introducing me to two words I didn't know. I could see that herb butter, hazelnuts and parmesan played roles in Praires farcies au beurre d'herbes aux noisettes et au parmesan but praires? Hard shell clams, which I sometimes see at the local SuperU. You're warned not too cook them too long in the oven or they become, second new word of the day....caoutchouteuses...rubbery.
       Butter, white wine, I suppose you could call this a mildly sinful recipe unlike the one below for Tarte chocolat-citron au mascarpone which is deep, dark evil. I believe in never doing things by halves, especially sinning.  So, for the perfect accompaniment, follow the blog's suggestion and sip a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes while you're at it.

       Go on, click on it. You know you want to....

Friday, April 1, 2011

Update on the Chocolate Biscuit Cake

All you need are tiny portions as it's stupefyingly rich. Cut into small bars while it's still chilled.

With it, we sipped small glasses of homemade vin de noix--delicious, like a cream sherry.