11 December 2016

Winter sunrise

Early last week, during the spell of dry, cold weather we've been having, I took these photos from our kitchen window. The sun rises just after 8:30 a.m. at this time of year, and goes back down at 5:00 p.m.

I think I first took the middle photo, and then a few close-ups of the scene. It's been a treat to see so much sunshine in December this year. Today it is predicted to be cloudy and gray, but there's still little or no rain in the 10-day forecast.

10 December 2016

Cooking the coq au riesling

Well, it's not a coq, so it's not really coq au vin — at least the way I made it. It's a Guinea hen (une pintade). And it's more like coq au vin than like a classic fricassée. It's a recipe from Alsace, with elements of the two standard French recipes. It's made with white wine, and there's cream in the sauce. Coq au vin is made with red wine, and has no cream in it.

A classic fricassée of poultry, lamb, veal, or rabbit is a white stew. The fricassée sauce contains cream, as does this coq au riesling sauce. But for the fricassée, the poultry or meat is not browned first. The Larousse Gastronomique says it just should be "stiffened" (raidi) in a pan on low heat. For coq au vin or pintade au riesling, the pieces of poultry are first browned well in butter or vegetable oil.

Along with onions, or shallots, one of the main flavor ingredients in coq au vin is chunks of smoked pork belly, or lardons fumés. In this recipe, the pieces of coq, chicken, or pintade are browned first, taken out of the pan or pot, and set in a warming oven to wait. Then onions or shallots and garlic are sautéed with smoked lardons in the same pan. You can cut the lardons large or small. A splash of cognac or armagnac in the pan at this point can't hurt, whether you actually flambez it or not.

And there are mushrooms in it too, as in both fricassée and coq au vin. After the lardons and onions are cooked, you put the poultry pieces back in the pan or pot with them. You pour on, say, half a bottle of riesling wine (it's an off-dry white wine) and then enough water or broth to barely cover the poultry. Spread the mushrooms on top, push them into the liquid a little, cover the pan, and set it in the oven on medium-low heat for at least 40 minutes — or longer.

After an hour or so, take the pan out of the oven. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to lift out the poultry pieces and lardons, which again get set aside in a warm oven. Strain the mushrooms and onions out of the cooking liquid, pouring the liquid into a pot. Set the pot on medium-high heat and let the liquid reduce by about half. Then pour in a cup of cream and let it reduce again, until you like the consistency. Put the mushrooms and shallots back in. Don't waste anything.

Above are the cooked pintade and lardons waiting to be coated with the cream sauce, which you can thicken or not — your choice. Serve any extra sauce at the table, and accompany the coq au riesling with steamed or boiled potatoes, rice, or pasta.

Here's the recipe. If you want a translation, I can post one, or you can let Google translate it. You could also read Nigella Lawson's recipe that was published in the New York Times.

Coq au riesling
1 volaille de 1,5 kg
50 g de beurre
200 g de lardons fumés
3 échalotes
1 gousse d’ail
5 cl de cognac
40 cl de riesling
200 g de champignons
20 cl de crème fraîche
Sel et poivre

Découper la volaille (poulet, coq, poularde, pintade…).

Faire chauffer le beurre dans une cocotte. Faire revenir les morceaux
de volaille. Saler et poivrer. Réserver les morceaux de volaille au chaud.

Ajouter dans la cocotte les lardons, les échalotes, et l’ail hachés.
Flamber avec le cognac. Remettre la volaille. Déposer les champignons.
Rectifier l’assaisonnement. Laisser cuire 40 minutes à feu doux.

Retirer les morceaux de volaille et les déposer sur un plat de service.

Laisser réduire le jus de cuisson et ajouter la crème en remuant.

Verser la sauce sur la viande. Servir aussitôt.

09 December 2016

Un coq... ou pintade... au riesling

Yesterday I made one of the recipes from the Cuisine Alsacienne book that I mentioned here recently. It was the one for Coq au riesling, which turns out to be the same thing, basically, as the Burgundian classic Coq au vin, but cooked with Alsatian white wine rather than Burgundy red.

Getting riesling wine here in the Loire Valley is not a problem. It's widely available in the supermarkets and is usually inexpensive at 4 or 5 euros a bottle. Mushrooms, smoked pork belly cut into lardons... those are easy-to-find standard ingredients too. But the recipe called for cooking a 1.5 kg coq. That's just 3 lbs. and I've never seen a rooster/cockerel that small in the markets or supermarkets around here. The coqs I've cooked in the past weighed in at 7 to 8 lbs.

I could have bought a 3 lb. chicken, but then I noticed that one of the supermarkets had nice farm-raised, free-range Guinea hens on sale at a good price. In French, that's called « une pintade » or, if it's a young bird, « un pintadeau ». It's an African bird that's related to the chicken and the pheasant, and some still live wild in in the countries south of the Saharan Desert. France is the world's biggest producer of domesticated Guinea fowl, according to the Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia.

Thighs, drumsticks, wings, and trimmings

The pintade I got weighed in at l.65 kilos, which was about perfect for what I wanted to do. Very young pintades are good oven-roasted like a chicken, but the older, bigger birds are better fricasseed or stewed, and Coq au vin is a variant of the classic fricassée. So therefore is Coq au riesling, with its white wine sauce. (By the way, I remember that my grandfather's sister kept Guinea fowl on her farm in South Carolina back in the 1960s, so I was familiar with the species.)

The Guinea hen breast cut into four pieces

I was a little nervous about being able to cut the Guinea hen up into serving portions, which is what the fricassee recipe calls for. You cut it up just as you would a chicken, but I had a memory of trying to do that in the past but with difficulty. The bones were harder than chicken bones (especially the breast bone), and the wing, leg, and thigh joints were harder to find and cut into. I shouldn't have worried, though. It all turned out to be pretty easy. You can see that the flesh of the Guinea fowl is all more or less "dark meat" — even the breast. It's delicious — firm and meaty.

More about cooking it tomorrow...

08 December 2016

The Peugeot passed... inspection

We passed the test! It's a big relief, and it means that the 16-year-old Peugeot 206 is good for at least another two years. I took it to the inspection station — le centre de contrôle technique —  yesterday morning and got the good news. Inspection stations in France do only that — they inspect. They don't do repairs. You have to go to a mechanic for those. That means there is no conflict of interest.

When the man who checked the car out was giving me the paperwork, he commented on how low the Peugeot's kilométrage is. The odometer reads about 127,250 kilometers, but that's not the true figure, because the instrument cluster had to be changed out a few years ago. I gave the man the real "mileage" — it's more like 181,300 km, which is about 112,500 miles — and he said even that wasn't much on a car with a good diesel engine like the Peugeot's.

Fact is, we've put only about three thousand miles on the car since its last inspection, two years ago. By the way, more than 8.3 million Peugeot 206 cars have rolled off the assembly lines in France and other countries over the years. No other Peugeot model has ever been produced in such numbers, and more Peugeot 206 cars have been sold than any other French car model in history, surpassing the legendary Renault 4 — I had one of those 30 years ago. However, if you live in the U.S. you might never have heard of the Peugeot 206 or the Renault 4 before, because neither has ever been sold there.

07 December 2016

Oui... mais du Berry

Yes, they looked like clams or some other mollusk, but those were lentils in my photos yesterday. I had bought and was cooking a 500 gram bag of lentilles vertes du Berry. They are produced by the Association Lentilles Vertes du Berry in Saint-Georges-sur-Arnon, just outside the town of Chârost, near Issoudun, in the old Berry province.

Lentils are easy to prepare because you don't need to soak them before cooking them, and they take only 20 to 30 minutes to cook.

I made what is called une brunoise — aromatic vegetables cut into tiny dice — to cook with the beans. It was onions, garlic, and carrots.

I "sweated" the brunoise in a little bit of duck fat before adding the lentils to the pot and tossing them with the fat and vegetables. Then I added water and a little bit of stock.

I also had some meats left from the choucroute garnie that I cooked a few days ago, so I diced those up and put them in the pot with the lentils and vegetables. They included some smoked ham hock, part of a smoked saucisse de Montbéliard, and most of a saucisse de Francfort. In France lentils are often cooked and served with the salt-cured pork called petit salé, but smoked pork is also good with them.

That made a nice lunch, with a green salad and some good bread and wine. I can't remember eating very many lentils in the U.S. Maybe they are more popular here in France. And in India and other parts of Asia, they are made into what is called dal and eaten with flatbreads or rice.

06 December 2016

Close up

Can you tell what these are?

Maybe this slightly longer view will help.

C'est tout pour aujourd'hui.

05 December 2016


The temperature is well above freezing this morning, for the first time in several days. It's at least 10ºF "warmer" than it has been on recent mornings. It's still winter though, according to meteorologists. And it's been very foggy. I went for a drive in the Peugeot yesterday morning, over to Luçay-le-Mâle and Valençay, where visibility was severely limited.

Winter greens

Winter wisteria

Winter vines

So far in late November and now December, we've had quite a bit of frost but no snow. On many mornings, the kale and chard plants out in the garden have drooped drastically, affected by the cold. But they bounce back. I think the wisteria leaves will fall pretty soon. And the grapevines are now bare, with pruning well under way.

04 December 2016

Cherchez l'erreur...

I made a big batch of choucroute garnie a few days ago. I know, it's a lot of meat. We eat it over a period of days, and some of it can go into the freezer when we're tired of eating it. The sauerkraut itself is delicious and très digeste. The only other thing you eat alongside the choucroute garnie is some steamed potatoes.

I've posted about cooking choucroute many times over the past 10 years. Here's a link to some of those posts. The meats here, clockwise from the top, are jarret de porc fumé (smoked ham hock), saucisse de Strasbourg, poitrine de porc fumée (smoked pork belly), saucisson à l'ail (garlic sausage), saucisse de Montbéliard, and saucisse de Francfort.

Yesterday morning I spent some time reading a little book called La Cuisine Alsacienne that I received as a gift a few years ago (thanks, Martine). Now I have a whole list of Alsatian dishes that I want to try my hand at: kougelhopf salé, kougelhopf sucré, tarte flambée, tarte à l'oignon, pommes de terre fumées, coq au riesling, spätzle, galettes aux asperges...

03 December 2016

The tajine of lamb and pumpkin recipe

Tajine of Lamb and Honey-Glazed Pumpkin

1½ lbs. lamb shoulder or leg meat, cut into cubes
1½ lbs. pumpkin, cut into cubes or thick slices
2 or 3 medium onions
1 or 2 cloves garlic
½ cup raisins
3 or 4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. ras el hanout spice mix (or more to taste)
2 or 3 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. honey
1 small can chickpeas
salt and pepper to taste
fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley...)

Preheat the oven to 160ºC (325ºF). Cut the lamb into 1-inch cubes. Peel and slice the onions and garlic. Cut the pumpkin into thick slices and peel them. Optionally, cut the slices into 1-in cubes.

Put the lamb cubes into a bowl and season them with the ras el hanout spices and salt. In a frying pan, sauté the lamb cubes in olive oil until they are well browned. Take them out of the pan and set them aside. Sauté the onion, garlic, and raisins in the same pan, adding more olive oil as needed.

Combine the browned lamb cubes and sautéed onion mixture together in an oven-proof dish with a lid. Pour in enough water to barely cover the lamb and onions. Put the dish in the oven, covered, and let it cook for an hour. Add more water as needed during the cooking process.

In a clean frying pan, melt the butter. Brown the pumpkin cubes or slices on medium-high heat, turning them carefully to brown them on all sides, as possible. Spoon the honey over the pumpkin and give it a few minutes on the heat to thicken and caramelize.

Put the glazed pumpkin on top of the lamb mixture in the baking dish and put the cover back on. Add the chickpeas. Let everything cook for another 15 or 20 minutes on low heat.

Serve with chopped fresh herbs and either rice, millet, or couscous grain.

02 December 2016

How to make — and cook with — the tajine spice blend

I found a post on Epicurious this morning that explains how you can make your own version of the North African spice blend called ras el hanout. Here's a link. The ingredients are all standard spices you can find nearly anywhere: cumin, ground ginger, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, ground coriander seeds, cayenne pepper, ground allspice, and ground cloves. You can customize the list and the blend as you see fit.

For the lamb and pumpkin tajine I made recently, the first step was to "marinate" the chunks of lamb in the spices. (By the way, I noticed a jar of ras el hanout among the spices at our local SuperU store the other day.) Use the spices as a dry rub on the meat before you brown it in olive oil in a hot frying pan or wok.

Then take the meat out of the pan, set it aside, and sauté some sliced onions and garlic in the same pan, along with a handful of raisins, in a little more oil as needed. When the onions have softened, put the meat back into the pan (or transfer everything to a tajine or other oven-proof dish). Add a cup or two of water or broth — just enough to barely cover the meat — and put the dish in a slow oven (160ºC or 325ºF) for an hour.

All that's left to do, after the pumpkin is glazed and the meat is cooked, is to put the pumpkin on top of the meat, put the lid back on, and let it all cook slowly for 15 or 20 more minutes. Stir it only gently so that you don't mush up the pumpkin too much.

This kind of recipe is infinitely adaptable. Use chunks of chicken or turkey or even veal instead of lamb. Soak some prunes or dried apricots in water while the meat is cooking and put them in the tajine in the place of the glazed pumpkin. (Turkey, duck, or veal will work very well with prunes.) Vary the spice blend. Add as much cayenne or other hot pepper as you like. Serve the tajine with couscous grain, rice, or millet.

This was the third in an uninterrupted series on the lamb and pumpkin tajine.

01 December 2016

Potiron caramélisé

The lamb and pumpkin tajine I've been writing about calls for caramelized cubes of pumpkin. In other words, it's a sweet-and-savory dish. The lamb is cooked with Moroccan spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and cayenne pepper, and with onions.

For the caramelized pumpkin (or other winter squash like butternut), you cut the pumpkin in half or quarters, remove the pulp and seeds from the center, and then cut thick slices that you can peel with a knife or vegetable peeler. You can cut the thick slices into cubes, the way I did, or you can caramelize the thick slices themselves, whole.

Melt plenty of butter in a non-stick frying pan. Put the chunks or slices in the pan and let them brown on one side. It takes a few minutes. Then carefully turn all the pieces of pumpkin over, or toss them around in the pan, to try to get them brown on another side. It can be a fairly delicate operation once the pumpkin starts to cook and soften.

When the browning is done, pour a couple of tablespoons of honey into the pan and stir everything around gently. The honey will start to thicken. Put a lid on the pan for a few minutes until the pumpkin pieces are tender. Set them aside until you're ready to combine them with the braised meat you're using — lamb, turkey, or chicken, for example.

Definitely cook the meat with onions and spices. Adding tajine spices to the pan of caramelized pumpkin cubes or slices is optional. Actually, the meat is optional too. The little Tajines (Hachette 2005) cookbook I have includes a recipe for a vegetarian pumpkin tajine cooked with sauteed onions, raisins, spices, butter, and honey. The caramelized pumpkin could also make a good dessert, with pound cake or rice pudding, for example.

30 November 2016

Un tajine : ustensile et plat

I've mentioned that last weekend I made what is called un tajine, using lamb and pumpkin. It occurred to me that you might not know what a tajine is. Here's one. It's pronounced [tah-ZHEEN], with the same -zh- sound as in our words measure, treasure, and pleasure.

The tajine is the name given to both the cooking dish (l'ustensile) and the food (the "dish" or le plat) that's cooked in it. Tajines are a specialty of  northwestern Africa (Morocco and Algeria). It seems they were an important part of the cooking of the original Berber people who inhabited the area before the arrival of the Arabs more than a thousand years ago.

You don't absolutely need a special cooking vessel to make a tajine, which is a highly spiced sauté or stew of meat and vegetables or meat and fruit. Highly spiced doesn't mean the tajine preparation is hot like some Mexican or East Asian dishes can be. The tajine spices include non-fiery cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, fenugrec, curry, caraway, and turmeric, plus a small quantity of hot red pepper like cayenne. The tajine "utensil" is a nice way to serve it, however.

I don't always use the tajine dish when I cook a tajine. I did use it for the lamb and pumpkin tajine the other day, because the recipe I found called for braising the lamb for an hour or more in a slow oven. A few years ago, I bought a tajine and was told that I could cook in it on a burner on top of the stove. I did so, but the pan cracked after after a time or two. As you see, the conical lid has a small vent hole or "chimney" in it so that some steam can escape, though most of it condenses on the sides and drips back down into the base, keeping the meat and vegetables moist. It works great in the oven.

For the lamb with pumpkin, I first browned chunks of lamb and a lot of sliced onions with spices in a metal pan on the stovetop, and then I transferred all that to the tajine, added some liquid, put on the lid, and put the whole thing in the oven at a fairly low temperature. The meat ended up very tender, and it was flavorful with all the spices and onions in the cooking liquid. The pumpkin went in later...

29 November 2016

Cold mornings, short days

Today is a big test for the new greenhouse. The outside temperature is just below freezing. A few minutes ago, I checked the thermometer inside the greenhouse and it read something in the low 30s in ºF — barely above 0ºC. I hope none of the plants we've put in there is too sensitive to the cold.

Yesterday morning it wasn't so cold, but the temperature outside didn't get above about 45ºF (7ºC) during the day. Inside the greenhouse in the afternoon, with the sun shining brightly, it was a pleasant 60ºF (15ºC). It was sunny when I went out to walk with the dog at about 4:45, so I took my camera with me and shot this series of photos pulling away from the house and the lean-to greenhouse.

Earlier, Walt gone and spread out the leaves we raked up a week or more ago and hauled out to the vegetable garden. The layer of leaves will keep weeds and grasses from taking over the garden plot during the winter, and make it easier to till in the spring. I'll till the leaves into the soil at that point. Those are apple trees that still have a few golden leaves on them.

I took the last photo from outside the back fence. The vineyard is right behind me. You can see the three big conifers that stand in our yard. The sun was going down quickly — it rises at about 8:20 a.m. and sets at 5:05 p.m. right now. That makes for short days, but at least the sun will be shining some this week.

28 November 2016

Cockles etc.

The shellfish that I got Saturday morning when I went to the market in Saint-Aignan turned out to be cockles. We've cooked them several times over the past couple of years, and we enjoy them. At 12 euros per kilo, they are much less expensive than clams (praires 24€/kg, palourdes 20€/kg).

I've done posts over the years about making spaghetti or linguine with what is called "white clam sauce" — here, for example. It's called "white" because it's not made with tomato sauce, but with olive oil, white wine, and garlic or onions (or both).

Cockles are reputedly full of sand, so letting them disgorge in salted water for at least an hour, if not two or three, is important, as I described a couple of days ago. You need to put in 35 grams of salt for each liter of water to mimic seawater.

Meanwhile, yesterday for lunch I made a Moroccan tajine of lamb and pumpkin, using the rest of the lamb I roasted for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and about a quarter of an orange pumpkin from our 2016 vegetable garden. It was a success and would be good made with chicken or turkey too. More later...

27 November 2016

Fast and furious in the Peugeot

I went out for a long but fast drive in the old Peugeot yesterday morning. It's time for the car, a 206 which will be 16 years old in December, to be taken in for its biannual contrôle technique, or vehicle inspection test. It now has about 120,000 miles on it, but it has a diesel engine that should last for many more years and kilometers. In December 2012 the car failed the required emissions test, so I had to take it in for a second inspection after pouring an additive to the fuel tank and driving it around hard and fast for a week or so, following my trusted mechanic's advice. On the second try it passed the test.

The view from our kitchen window yesterday morning

Yesterday morning, conditions weren't ideal for a drive in the country, but I felt like I had to go out anyway. The car has a five-speed manual transmission, so driving it hard means running it fast in low gears so that the engine revs at 3,000 to 4,000 RPMs for a while. We normally just tootle around town with the Peugeot these days, and that does cause carbon to build up in the engine, I guess. It needs to be driven like a teenager might drive it — fast and furious.

My 40-mile loop around eastern Touraine

So out I went at about 9:00 a.m. I turned on the fog lights and tried to drive on roads where there wouldn't be many other cars. That took me into central Mareuil, through woods and fields on narrow lanes over to the pretty village of Céré-la-Ronde, and up a wider, hilly road to Montrichard (where I did some shopping). Then I continued on to Pontlevoy, down to Thésée, and finally to the market in Saint-Aignan. That's about 35 miles of zooming and careening. At times, the visibility was severely limited by patches of thick fog. I wanted to take more photos but it was just too foggy.

Arriving at Saint-Aignan on a gray morning, with the château looming

I carefully obeyed the speed limits so that I wouldn't get a ticket. Two years ago in December, the car passed inspection, including the pollution part, with flying colors. I think that was because I put the engine-cleaning additive in the fuel tank and then Walt and I drove it over to Burgundy (Chablis, Noyers, Montbard) for a three-day excursion. That seemed to work. I'm hoping a few more spins around the local countryside will do the trick this year. The inspection is scheduled for December 7, and the contrôle technique is a very rigorous set of tests here in France. The old Peugeot 206 is running great right now, I'm glad to say.

26 November 2016

Palourdes, clams, ou coques

Walt said yesterday that he felt like eating some spaghetti with clam sauce, after two days of meals based on lamb, beans, and potatoes. So I'll be going to the market in Saint-Aignan in a few minutes, while he takes Callie for her morning walk. There's a seafood vendor at the market who comes to town every Saturday from the Marennes-Oléron area on the Atlantic coast, between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. It's a four-hour drive.

The last time we had spaghetti with clam sauce, we made it with a kilogram of what were called « palourdes japonaises » that I got from the fish section of our local SuperU grocery store. When I bought them, I wondered to myself if they could possibly be imported. The little net bag they were packaged in was well labeled, however, and set me straight.

It turns out that these Pacific Ocean clams are "farmed" in France, along the country's southwest Atlantic coast. Palourdes are in the same family as the North American clam, but they are smaller. There are native French palourdes, and there are palourdes in all the world's oceans, if I understand correctly. The "Japanese" shellfish turned out to be what are known as Manila clams in the U.S. We used to enjoy eating them in California, where they were often cooked the way mussels are cooked in France — à la marinière, with garlic, white wine, and herbs.

The clams from SuperU were of the species Ruditapes philippinarum. That second term was a good clue that they were the same Manila clams we had on the U.S. west coast. I grew up eating clams, mostly as chowder, on the coast of North Carolina, where we would go clamming on sandbars in the sounds in summertime, using rakes, shovels, or just our hands and feet to dig the clams out of the sand. The French-raised Manila clams are labeled as having been "fished" out of the sand and water the same way — Pêch. à pied, the label says ("fished on foot"), in the Golfe de Gascogne.

I don't know what kind of clams I'll find at the market in Saint-Aignan. They could be palourdes like the Manila clams, which were introduced into French waters in the 1970s, according to the Larousse Gastronomique. Or they could be another variety known simply as « clams » [klahmss], which are the North American ones. Those were introduced into French waters about a century ago. There's another clam-like mollusk called the « praire » (the venus clam) in France. And finally, there are cockles or « coques », which we like a lot, and also a local Atlantic clam that's called the « lavagnon » on the SW French coast.

Whatever the variety, it's a good idea to give clams time to disgorge themselves of sand before you cook and eat them. What you do is make up a batch of cold salt water (unless you can get actual seawater), add in a tablespoon or two of corn meal (polenta) or semolina (cream of wheat), and let the clams soak in the water for a few hours. They will feed on the corn meal and expel any sand that remains in their digestive tract. Then they won't be gritty when you eat them.