Sunday, August 26, 2012

Easy Side Dishes to Serve with Roast Chicken

     Pasta tossed with olive oil and parsley, steamed potatoes, couscous, polenta, a baguette...just about any starch you can think of goes with roast chicken. In my book, it's even better if you tart up the starch component so you get your vegetables at the same time. 
     You can take the parsley approach or mix chopped fresh tomatoes and torn basil leaves into pasta instead. Potatoes taste much better (and look far prettier) sprinkled with scissored chives. Couscous becomes tabbouleh when you add handfuls of red or green pepper, cucumber, tomato, mint, and cartloads of parsley, all chopped. Polenta is lovely when you throw in fine snippings of rosemary and/or shredded sun-dried tomatoes as you cook it.   

 All these additions work with rice too but what I've been making a lot over the past incredibly hot month is rice salad. I can't give you a firm recipe because it's never the same twice, depending on what I've got in the fridge.
    Once the rice was cooked, today's chicken-accompanying version began with the bird's juices, which I degreased first. Then I sloshed in some olive oil. As soon as the rice had cooled to room temp, in went chopped red pepper, red onion, parsley and--the secret ingredient--finely chopped preserved lemon, which adds a deliciously citric edge to the dish.
   Last Friday I bought a kilo of haricots verts at Lavelanet market for all of two euros. One handful per person, topped and tailed (scissors are the swiftest way to go about this), went into a pan of boiling water for five minutes. While they were cooking, I fried a finely chopped large clove of garlic in about three tablespoons of olive oil, just until it turned golden. Beans drained and put in a dish, garlic-y oil poured over. Done. Nice cold too and keeps for several days in the fridge, as does the rice salad, so make lots.
    Vinaigrette-d lettuce leaves. Tomatoes from the garden, still warm when we ate them. Bread (not a baguette but the rustic couronne with holes the size of centimes that we buy at the market). Cold rosé from Provence.
    And suddenly it was four in the afternoon.

How to Make Perfect Roast Chicken

   I feel like an ad from the 1950s..."She used to do it the wrong way, and then she discovered..." Pause while I put on my pinny.
   Once upon a time, I used to roast chickens whole. The results were alright, I suppose, but sometimes the breast meat was dryer than the thighs, and then there was all the bother of carving them and asking who wanted white meat and who liked a leg. I'm not sure when I made the switch but lately, I've been butterflying my birds, which means that they cook faster, and the results are considerably, impressively juicier. Another term for this is "spatchcocking," a word that evidently originated in Ireland.
   A very sharp knife would probably do the job but it's considerably easier if you use purpose-built poultry shears. Mine came from Ikea several years ago, and I use them for nothing else. Vegetarians, look away. This is going to be graphic. If you want it to be even more graphic, go to YouTube and watch the video.
    To do the deed, insert the poultry shears up the chicken's rear end and cut through, beside the backbone, right the way through to where the neck would be if it hadn't been chopped off. Then do the same the other side of the backbone. Now, with the chicken's skin side up,  take a heavy knife, and cut down the middle of the breastbone, part-way through, stem to stern. Finally, with a firm hand, flatten the chicken.
     The following is based on using a chicken weighing around 1.2 kg (a little over 2-1/2 pounds). Heavier chicken=longer cooking time. Obviously.
     Put your spatchcocked bird into a pan just large enough to accommodate it. Salt and pepper the bird,  and maybe smear its skin with olive oil. Don't go overboard with the oil. Usually, I also throw in some garlic cloves (peeled or unpeeled), and maybe squeeze a halved lemon over it. Then I whack it into an oven preheated to 175°C. Give it a glance after 30 or 40 minutes and, if it looks a little dry, spoon some of the pan juices over it. After one hour, it should be done, the skin golden-brown, taut and crispy, the meat cooked through. A knife stuck into the bird where the leg joins the body should slide cleanly through. If you're not sure, crank the heat up by 10 degrees and give it ten minutes more.
      Decant your lovely, gilded roast chicken on to a platter and cover it with a tea towel if, as we did this morning, you're off to a vide grenier, and want chicken for lunch.  Do not use plastic wrap. A hot chicken gives off steam and any condensation falls back on its skin and makes it soggy. We don't want that, do we. 
     You can eat it hot of course but, either way, this is simple, rustic food so don't faff around with fancy decorative touches. Just cut the chicken in four (another reason to buy poultry shears), and adorn it with parsley and a quartered lemon.
      Now, digest that while I get on to the next post, wherein I'll tell you some easy dishes to serve with the chicken.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Breakfast at the market.

    Unless it's winter, when porridge comes into the picture, we eat the same breakfast every morning: yogurt, granola and fruit--sweet, drippy peaches and nectarines at the moment. But, on market days, we  pick up croissants or whatever, go to a café, and have a second breakfast around 11 a.m. Here's last Friday's.

 One straw hat, one café crème, and a Nutella croissant. chocolate, hazelnuts, powdered sugar...Just think about it...
    Ditto, but with a pain aux raisins instead.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Two New Restaurants in Mirepoix

    Apart from vide greniers, there's not much to do in the way of shopping in our part of France on Sundays. Granted, you can pick up your crusty bread, tarte au citron, roast chicken or newspaper--and even a handful of supermarkets throw open their doors--but, soon after noon, everything shuts tight. Simple reason. Sunday lunch is one of the, if not the, most important meal of the week. Boulangerie and patisserie queues are common, everyone departing with baguettes under their arm or swinging a small square tarte-holding box from the hand. The butcher is usually sold out of rotisserie chicken by noon. Then, silence falls as families gather at maman or grandmaman's house and everyone sits down around the table.
     Last Sunday, we thought we'd go out to lunch. Not a full-on three courses because temperatures have been in the mid to high thirties all this week. All we wanted was something light in the shade of a parasol at one of the new-ish restaurants we wanted to try in Mirepoix. 

 Vegetarian Indian food. We didn't eat here as, coincidentally, we'd had a curry dinner just a couple of nights previously. What we did have, which was utterly delicious, was chilled ginger-and-lemon juice.
La Niña is the only place I know that serves duck fajitas!

The yellow-ish cast to these food photos comes from the parasol.  Excellent pizzas here with a crust as thin as a supermodel. Tomatoes, aubergines, asparagus, peppers and just enough cheese. Delish.
     One of the salades composées on the menu. This one was loaded with chunks of Roquefort and walnuts. Too hot for wine so we drank eau de robinet (tap water).

One more vide grenier, two more brocantes...

Last Sunday morning found us ambling around a vide grenier in Mirepoix.
   The big question here was...could you buy each item individually or did you have to walk away with the whole thing?
The careful editing and arranging--enamelware in this case--means that this stallholder knows his or her stuff--and prices are correspondingly higher than if you unearthed any of these from a carton underneath the table (my favourite place to search). I didn't even bother to ask the price of this matched set of vintage tins in prime condition.
  We own a duplicate of the one on the right. From the hairstyles, I'm guessing these date back to the 1940s or 50s.
On the secondhand social ladder, the vide grenier is at the bottom, with the depot-vente one step up, and the brocante above that. Then you enter the costly realm of the antiquaire. This brocante in Mirepoix specializes in old books and magazines. If you're a Brigitte Bardot fan, check out all those  copies of Paris Match.
The owner was still enjoying his Sunday lunch when we walked by. "I'm eating. Open 3 p.m."
But there's another brocante right opposite.
I just love this combination of sun-faded pinks and blues, and that intricate tiled floor inside.
     Beyond the shop is a secret courtyard crammed with more treasures. Next weekend, there's another vide grenier in a nearby village.
     And so summer Sundays go by...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mirepoix's Monday Market

   You have to love alliteration, don't you....Mirepoix's marvellous Monday market is maddening at the moment mainly because of its summer visitors. Glad as I am that they're enjoying our part of the country, it can be frustrating elbowing my way through the camera-wielders. House rule at the moment is that if we're not there before 9 a.m., forget it.
   Some random notes, with prices left on so you can see how they compare with what you're paying if you live in North America.
 Organic heirloom tomatoes. Red, orange, yellow, green, striped, blushing, juicy, sweet... serve yourself, mix and match. Slice on a plate, strew with torn basil, sprinkle with olive oil. There's the entrée taken care of. That price of 2.50 euros a kilo translates to about $1.42 a pound.
 One 500 g portion of paella costs $5.50. Get to the market early enough and you can watch it being made.

Cornus and miches are big crusty, hole-y loaves weighing 750 - 800 g. They're meant to last a week, from one market day to the next. These cost $3.37 each.
    You'll pay $1.70 a pound for the main ingredient for your moules marinières. At some point during the past ten years, the price of mussels rocketed from 2.80 euros to 3 euros. It's been 3 euros now for at least three years. This producer farms his moules in Sète on the Mediterranean coast, not far from Montpellier. He gets up at 3 a.m., leaves his house an hour later and eventually parks his van at Mirepoix on Mondays and Lavelanet on Fridays. Other days he goes to other markets. He told me that he's being doing this for 30 years.
    Behind the shellfish, you can make out the doorway of a smart little boutique. If you leave your moules with the moules man (a few kilos can be a few too many to lug round the market) and you haven't arrived by the time he's on the road home, he will leave your purchase inside the boutique

A Billet Doux to Jamie Oliver (and some other TV chefs)

    After many years of being a real fan of hers, Nigella has lost me. These days, her programs seem to be warmed-over versions of her original ones--and all those faux sexy gestures have definitely lost their charm. Personally, I'm waiting for the moment when Nigella suggestively sticks her finger into boiling oil...
    Instead, my favourite TV chefs at the moment are, in no particular order, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater, Ina "Barefoot Contessa" Garten and Jamie Oliver. Googling "TV" plus the name you're curious about should take you where you want to go.
    Reasons? Maybe because they don't call themselves "chefs"for one thing.
    Known as Hugh Fearlessly-Eats-It-All--because he appears to be willing to put almost anything in his mouth (maybe he and Nigella should collude) Hugh F-W lives at River Cottage, a bucolic haven where he grows, harvests, cooks and feeds huge armies of people. He always makes it look very doable, so sometimes I do. I'm thinking of a blazingly pretty salad of carrots, oranges and cashews and a silky plate of leeks cooked in coconut milk. Simply by creating flavours that anyone in their right mind wants to eat, Hugh F-W has done wonders for popularizing vegetable dishes.
     I've long been a fan of Nigel Slater who looks more like an academic than a cook. Besides being a regular columnist in The Guardian, he's also written a book that slingshots me right back to my English childhood. Kia Ora, The Jaffa Cake, The Cadbury's Flake...if any of these names causes a twinge of nostalgia, you need a copy of Eating for England: The Delights & Eccentricities of the British at Table.
     The only non-Brit to make the cut, American Ina Gartner would fit right in with Hugh, Nigel and Jamie. "Largesse" is the first word I think of when I think of Ina although I'm not sure that the health police would approve of her generosity with butter and cream. Their loss. She doesn't faff around with twee decorative touches. She also has the same measuring spoons that I do.
     Finally, I'm a huge fan of Jamie Oliver because he uses his fame in the right way, mostly, by genuinely trying to help people eat healthier food.  
     The other night, I came on a program called "Jamie Does Venice." God, that's a beautiful city. It really doesn't have a single bad angle. Overlooked quite often is that it also has a woman's prison which, Jamie, bless him, visited (which is the kind of thing he does). 
    Not sure if it was there that he cooked a risotto, but he cooked it somewhere and, instead of the usual seafood or veg, topped it with uncooked tomatoes, basil and parmesan. Then he made a little salad on the side using courgette flowers.
    Hmmm, I thought. Got all those, and got some arborio rice. So, the following evening, out I went with my tiny axe, gave the vegetable patch 40 whacks and came back with this: 

       The salad wasn't totally garden-grown as I added some thinly sliced fennel for crunch.
But all in all, a pleasant and easy little summer supper. A tip of the hat to Monsieur Oliver.

Summer Wine...

   With a forecast ranging from 30 to 36 degrees over the next days, I foresee a lot of sitting around--and sipping. Litres of water, sometimes with a jolt of elderflower cordial and then, once the church bell has rung six times (in the evening) an apero. Okay, the occasional glass of rosé with lunch but the problem is that wine plus heat sends you straight to bed for a three-hour nap. Oh right, that's called a siesta.
    French winemakers aren't snooty about what to drink in warm weather. The cool tipple this summer is a combination of rosé and grapefruit juice with an alcohol level of about nine or 10 percent.

   "Very Pamp'" (pamplemousse being French for grapefruit) comes in a three-litre box--and isn't that the girliest packaging?
    Or you can buy Esprit Fruité by the bottle. I've tried this brand but find it a bit too sweet.
    Then there's this...Rosé specifically designed to be drunk around the swimming pool or on the terrace. The label says so. And that little thingy on the top right that looks like a postmark reads "absolutely with ice cubes."
    You can pick all these up at our local Intermarché, lug them home and tuck them in the fridge.  Just look to the left of the produce section, and round the corner from the bed sheets.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Vegetable Garden of Oddities...

   After a couple of years of trying to raise veg in shady conditions, it came to me in a flash of brilliance that the sunniest spot in the garden is right in the middle of the lawn.
   I truly hate lawns, the horticultural equivalent of tasteful beige, so it was with some gusto that I set to with a spade a couple of months ago. What's there right now are two beds, one each side of the bowling alley path (that has to go too, at some point). The soil here is beyond fertile and completely free of stones so digging is a real, and easy, pleasure.
      These beds aren't huge but they're jammed with vegetables that you don't normally see at the market. At the back are yard-long green beans grown from seeds I brought back from Chiang Mai. In front are white aubergine plants (from the same source), and bronze and green fennel. Mixed in with these, in no particular order:
 Can someone please tell me what this is? I bought it from an organic grower at Mirepoix market, but forgot to ask its name. It's quite pungent, and a little works well in salads and stir fries.
The Espelette pepper that is one of the basics of Basque cuisine. I picked up a little plant at a market in St. Jean de Luz when we were there in June.
 Gorgeous crimson-stemmed chard, one of four plants that just keeps producing and producing. Again, bought at a local market.
   The best euro I've ever spent was for this tomatillo plant. I've never even seen tomatillos for sale in France so this was a real find. I'm thinking salsa (and margaritas) some steamy night soon. Tiny when I first brought it home, the plant now stands at least a metre high, measures the same wide and is absolutely dripping with fruit.
     Also growing lustily are Asian greens from seeds I bought while we were in the UK, (which reminds me it's time to write some posts about travels earlier this year).
    Time to cook up some of those greens, grill some slices of pork belly that have been marinading all afternoon with chilis, soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil, and crack open the jar of homemade kimchee.

Meanwhile, back in the potager....

   I hadn't actually planned to grow courgettes but when someone gave us a seedling a few months ago, I stuck it in the large flower-pot-that-was-formerly-home-to various-ornamental-grasses-that-died-in-the-winter.
    The courgette plant is now producing at warm speed.
 Here's the second one I harvested (along with the one I won at boules for size comparison).
 Here's another one that I donated anonymously this afternoon to a neighbour.
     And here are more coming down the production line. Time to cook up a batch of soup, bake a cake, and freeze some for later in the year.

A Tale of Two Courgettes...

   Last Thursday we played boules with some friends. Sixteen of us were split up into teams of two. I'm still a bit hazy on the rules but basically you play another team and the first one to reach a score of 11, wins.
  A great deal of measuring goes on, and standing around in the shade...

   The winners walked away with bottles of bubbly. Our team was awarded consolation prizes of truly enormous courgettes. Mine--as you can see--is bigger than Peter's forearm. It's colossal, and so heavy that my little electronic scale gives out whimpers of despair when I try to guess the weight.