Thursday, November 29, 2012

An unexpectedly good lunch in Foix

   A week or so back, we needed to buy art and crafts supplies in Foix, which called for a trip to Majuscule, my favourite stationery shop in this part of France. We also had to be somewhere near Foix at 2:15 p.m., so doing the math meant there were two hours to occupy in the middle of the day because, around here, almost all shops close at noon.  (On the bright side, parking is almost always free between noon and 2 p.m. and you generally get 15 minutes thrown in free as well.)
   Sooooo.... what you do is have lunch. Not a swift trip into the sandwich shop for a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato on wholewheat but a proper sit-down meal in like-minded company.

   It's a while since we last ate at Le Jeu de l'Oie (named after a kids' game) but I think they've changed ownership. Where meals here were always reliable, they weren't especially surprising. You did sort of know that the entrée would always be pâté or something else, and I could recite the dessert choice from memory.
  When I say this was "unexpectedly good"(see title of this post) I don't just mean for what we paid. Not that entrée and plat du jour or plat du jour and dessert with a glass of wine or a coffee, and the usual basket of bread, all for 9.80 euros isn't a bargain--and that's including taxes and tip.
   What was unusual was the care and thought that had gone into it.
   In the open kitchen, we could see two young guys working seamlessly and at ferocious speed, with the occasional blaze of flame from the stove. It was incredible teamwork that was a joy to watch. 
   Medals all round too for the wisely-chosen menu du jour. They served a single entrée--potage Crécy--vegetable soup, which was clever. You could make it ahead, reheat it, and garnish, as needed.
    Two plats to choose from, one of them tartiflette with a little salad. The ingredients in tartiflette are Reblochon cheese, bacon, potatoes and onions. Does that sound good? It is. Delicious, satisfying, tummy-comforting and available everywhere, including at local markets where you can buy it dolloped into take-away containers. 
   So you could pick familiar comfort food, or...

    I'm a huge fan of squid and its relatives. On the menu today were tiny seiches, cooked for just the right amount of time so that they cut like butter. These were seriously good, and topped with what the menu said was "persillade". Normally this translates as a mixture of garlic, parsley and olive oil. This version was several rungs up the culinary ladder with the addition of tiny cubes of courgette and red pepper. Linguini dressed with pesto on the side. All in all, very satisfying.

    For dessert, there was familiar tarte tatin or a milles feuilles, the pastry topped with a commendably crackly caramel, and sandwiching a mousse combining whipped cream and puréed starfruit. We could see the one serveuse pause briefly between kitchen and table to scribble some raspberry coulis on the plate. She was also taking care of tables one floor above too, racing up the stairs with three plates balanced on her arm.
    Meanwhile, the little room hummed happily with people eating, drinking and talking. Judging from all the bisou-ing going on, all are regulars. You can see why.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Make Christmas Shortbread Mice.

     "Cute" doesn't begin to describe these festive little creatures and "onerous" doesn't start to describe the work involved in making them. Do you really want to hear the entire step-by-step process? Right, you asked for it.
      The night before.... mouse-making, the recipe told me to make my shortbread dough. Easy-peasy. Whack some butter into the Cuisinart, add flour, vanilla and egg, and it all turns into a single perfect ball of dough, ready to rest in the fridge overnight. 
      Except that it didn't. 
     It was more like fine shingle on a Norfolk beach. Gravelly anyway. My fault entirely. Mea culpa, ten times over. I'd only seen the word "butter" in the recipe, and not the term "softened." This had come straight from the freezer. Thinking fast but not very sensibly, I beat up another egg, and threw about half of it into the dough, which appeared to help. 
     Except that it didn't, as I found out the next evening. 
     Initially the dough felt alright. Though a bit sticky, I could still shape it into mice. I indented the eye sockets, stuck in two delicate pieces of almond for ears, did that 20 times and placed the baking sheet in the preheated oven. I the warmth hit them....they slowly spread into primeval flattish shapes. Mouse roadkill. 
      We ate them. I didn't bother with applying ickle chocolate eyes and noses (melt a chocolate bar; use a toothpick) but I did use the first batch to practice my tail insertion skills. (Poke skewer up mouse's derrière while it's still warm and insert length of licorice.)
      Made with properly softened butter, the second batch went better...

    Still not sure if I'd make them again. But it's seeded the idea for a separate post on how the world is divided into those who bake and those who don't. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thinking about veggies at the market

   Now that the tourist season is well and truly over, the locals have repossessed Mirepoix market--and we don't feel that we must be there before 9 a.m. Besides, we know at least three secret parking spots. One is by the canal, the other is opposite the tax office and I'm not telling you the other one.
   So, I've probably posted before about my habitual trawl around the stalls, the amazing smells from the paella and couscous stands, and the fleshy delights of the butchers' trucks (sorry, vegetarians, but I'm unrepentant).
   Eventually, I always end up here.

   And you know something? I'm seriously thinking of writing/drawing a bande dessinée (comic book in America but it sounds so much better in French) about the thought processes I go through when I'm faced with the Great Wall of Vegetables.
   Closeup of Ange, wide-eyed as she scans the greens. Over her head appears a thought bubble..."Oh my, that roquette looks incredible and would go so well with those walnuts we've got at home."
   Series of drawings of beautiful Savoy cabbage, strange, demonic black radishes and beetroot/beets/silverbeet (depending if you're Brit, American or Australian), wrinkled and dark, like something rather nasty in a pathology lab. The thing is, they're cooked, and how sensible is that. How many of us, raise your hands, have bought beetroot/beets/silverbeet and never got round to doing anything with them until they grew hair and/or became suspiciously squashy and ended up in the compost bucket.
    So, anyway, cooked beetroot/beets/silverbeet. A brilliant idea. Although, to be truthful, I didn't actually buy any last week.
  You help yourself to a round plastic basket and pile it high. In mine this week was a wedge of pumpkin, which ended up in soup, some frisée, earmarked for a salade Lyonnaise (that's the one with lardons and poached egg) but, for whatever reason, that never happened so it's showed up as part of the nightly green salad instead, some potatoes that just looked too tasty to turn down (not a sentence I'd ever thought I'd write), a red onion or two and, as usual, a big bunch of parsley.
   The only decision after that, after it's weighed, is whether to have everything tipped directly into your basket or to have it packed in plastic bags.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Celebrating new wine and chestnuts.

   A couple of hours ago, we came home from a community event that lasted most of the day. Billed as castanhas e vin novèl  ("chestnuts and new wine" in the Occitan language) and announced by leaflets hand-delivered to our post-boxes, it was organized by L'Amicale des Léranais (the Association of people who live in Léran) whose goal is to gather together Léranais and their friends to share memories, experiences, local culture and--inevitably--good food and wine. If you read French, you can follow our adventures at
   Shortly after the church bells rang ten o'clock, we met up in the Salle des Tilleuls (one of our village halls) for a quick coffee before we set off on a balade. More amble or saunter than serious hike, this one took us along the river bank and up to the little road that runs from the crossroads just beyond the chateau.
     I'm always delighted by how deeply many Léranais are immersed in their village's history. We learning that grapes have grown locally for over a thousand years. Some people revealed that they remembered wine being made around here too.
    Even though the day was cloudy, as we ambled down through the forest and back to the village, we still had excellent views of the Pyrenees and the glorious autumn colours. Love those russets and browns against the blue-greys.

    By 12:30 or so, we were back at the Salle des Tilleuls where a table was already set with bottles and snacks (including the lethally good fritons, basically unctuous morsels of deep-fried duck skin sprinkled with salt). We all set out the food we'd brought--chestnut inclusion was a good idea, we'd heard--and got stuck into the aperos.

    I'd brought along a pork, chestnut and apple pie that I'd made yesterday. The recipe's so easy that I'll give it to you right now: 250 g each of ground pork, crumbled cooked chestnuts and finely chopped apple plus a beaten egg, 100 ml of Madeira, salt and pepper. Mix that all together and pat it into a 24 or 25 cm flan tin that you've previously buttered and lined with pastry (that you've pricked with a fork). Dollop in the pork mixture, top with another circle of pastry, crimp the edges and brush with beaten egg. Cut a small hole in the middle and bake at 190°C/375°F for 45 minutes. The recipe said to serve it warm but it was fine cold, with curried apple chutney.
    Platters were passed up and down the table. Chicken with squash and chestnuts, chestnut and pork patties, a chicken recipe that originated in the French island of Réunion, endive leaves filled with creamed Roquefort, and much, much, much, much more. Many bottles of "new" wine were opened. Everyone shared everything. At some point, an oozingly ripe Brie was passed around, then chestnut cake, marrons glacés, clementines....and finally coffee.

    The age range spanned single figures to mid-80s. There was dancing, singing and, at some point, someone brought out a small trampoline from another room and jumped on it. It was that kind of afternoon.
    And let's not forget the poetry. Going back to that initial also included an invitation to contribute a poem or story. So, when I phoned Mauricette (one of the organizers) to RSVP, I added that I would bring a French.
     And I did. "Châtaigne" is another word for "chestnut."

Elle est belle, elle est ronde, elle est bonne à manger
Avec un verre de vin ou un verre de Champagne
Elle est si delicieuse, ce beau fruit d’hiver
Je parle naturellement de la châtaigne

On peux faire un farce pour un poulet ou un dinde
On peux faire une bonne tarte pour la famille
On peux l’utiliser dans une daube ou une soupe
Je parle naturellement de la châtaigne

Elle commence avec une fleur de printemps
Qui décore l’arbre comme une chandelle
Et après elle porte un manteau verte
Toujours la châtaigne est belle

Mais la châtaigne est une mixe des humeurs
A l’exterieur elle est dure, épineuse
Mais apprendre à la connaitre et vous decouvrez
A sa coeur, elle est douce, delicieuse

Quand il fait froid en hiver, en Decembre
C’est plaisant de s’asseoir au coin du feu sain
Et là, de rotir les belles fruits du saison
Je parle naturellement des châtaignes.

   It fills me with pride to boast that this was judged adequate enough to win me a lovely bar of soap.      What a thoroughly pleasurable day.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

200 diamonds, 40 gift tags, and how to devein a foie gras.

    The magazines I buy in France often come with a little freebie attached, a small cadeau stuck to their cover with some magical sticky substance that you can peel off and roll into a ball.
   In the spirit of the approaching season, this month's issue of Modes et Travaux has two giveaways: a small booklet of 40 quite good-looking gift tags, and a petit sachet of 200 "diamonds" to sprinkle on your festive table. This photo doesn't do them justice. These are very sparkly indeed to the point that I think I'd want to save them rather than throwing them out at the end of the meal, (except that the thought of sorting them out from the baguette crumbs doesn't thrill me).
   I suppose I'd define Modes et Travaux as a women's general interest magazine, assuming her interests are fashion, home décor, crafts, gardening, travel and food. At this point I can see I've wandered far off-piste and am going to have to cut straight to the topic I planned to write about in the first place, which is...
   How different the recipes are in French magazines.
   I'll pass briefly over the one for poularde au champagne, which calls for an entire bottle and is snuck in with an article on decorating, and move to the main event: seven fabuleux menus to make for Christmas.
    One begins with a soup of wild mushrooms and foie gras, and moves on to filet mignon en croûte. Dessert is a quick assembly of hazelnut, and chocolate, ice creams, marrons glacés and cream. A "black and white" menu kicks off with a carpaccio of black radish and scallops. "Noël So British" is nothing like any Christmas meal I've ever had in the motherland. Not when you start with a truffled pea soup and the main course--leg of lamb--calls for a great deal of whisky and Asian spices. Dessert is a traditional Christmas pudding topped with sparklers rather than the usual blue flames. Thank you, and God save the Queen.
    The points I'm trying to make here is that a) Christmas in France is more about the food than anything else, b) that what elsewhere in the world are thought of as luxury ingredients may not be cheap here but they're definitely within the realm of possibility--and finally, c) that you'd better have your methods down pat.
    In case you don't, Modes et Travaux's monthly "Masterclass" this time around describes, in words and pictures, four basic techniques that, at this time of year, everyone should have at their fingertips:
     How to fillet a salmon.
     How to open oysters.
     How to carve a capon.
     And...wait for it...
     How to devein a fresh foie gras
(P.S.  I'm dying to make the recipe on the next page. A "shepherd's pie" of duck with wild morilles.)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cool weather means coriander.

    In North America, you buy cilantro or Chinese parsley. In the UK, Coriandrum sativum is known as coriander, and in France, it's called coriandre.
    Whatever the name, up until recently, you rarely saw it in rural France. Now I know two sources in Mirepoix market and one in Lavelanet's but I'm not sure that I've ever been able to buy it in any of our local supermarkets. Like a lot of produce around here, fresh coriander is only available in season. Fine by me. It's surprising how interesting your food life becomes, and how imaginative your cooking gets, when you don't have endless access to the full buffet table
     Which is why I'm so pleased that, now that the summer heat is long gone, I can grow coriander again. And God knows, I need it.
    I need it for those fresh punchy Asian salads that you sometimes crave in the winter as a break from rib-sticking daubes and bean dishes. I need it for soups, especially those lovely, light broth-based ones that you punch up with fistfuls of fresh herbs.
    I need a large handful of fresh coriander for the Portuguese dish of pork with clams, and for samosa pie.
    Anyone remember the fusion food that swept through restaurants in the 80s? Some was more collision than fusion but one dish that did stand out was linguine with chicken (or shrimp) and black bean sauce.
    No recipe. Just slice and brown onions, red and/or green peppers, garlic and chicken breast. Add a mixture of black bean sauce, hot chili sauce and chicken stock or water. Cover the pan and let this all simmer while you cook your pasta. Drain, top with the sauce and toss in lots of chopped coriander.
    The last couple of years I've grown my own in pots, planting more every couple of weeks so the supply never runs out. Here's the latest crop.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Harvesting the Cayennes

    I can't get over how my cayenne pepper plant flourished this summer. Digging two vegetable beds in the middle of the lawn turned out to be a bright idea. There it's stood for the past few months, the peppers ripening to a glorious stinging shiny scarlet. A few have been given away for eating or for seeds for next year. We've only sampled one, and that was a couple of months ago.
    A Korean friend was staying and, as you probably know, Korean cuisine is known for its use of blisteringly hot peppers. She merrily chopped up a couple of inches of fresh cayenne pepper and sprinkled it over her salad. Meanwhile, I'd just tried the fork test where you touch the end of a prong to the cut side of the pepper--and taste--and suggested she did the same.
    She did, and carefully winkled out all the pepper morsels from her salad and moved them to the side of her plate. These super-strength cayennes won't go to waste but I'll definitely be careful how I use them.
  Here they are as of yesterday, harvested, threaded on string and hung beside the stove to dry.
       As a nation, French people are not too keen on piquant food. Out of curiosity, I Googled piment de cayenne and recettes. Lots exist but, in most cases, the instructions are to add a tiny pinch of dried cayenne pepper, and that's all.