30 November 2009

More about boletuses

That's what the dictionary says is the word to use for mushrooms of the genus Boletus. They are called boletuses or boleti, and the species called Boletus edulis, the Bordeaux Cep, is only one of very many members of the family. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a boletus is: “A fungus of the genus Boletus, having an umbrella-shaped cap with spore-bearing tubules on the underside and including both edible and poisonous species.”

Despite what our pharmacist, Mr. Martineau, said, I'm pretty sure the mushrooms we got were not the noble Cèpe de Bordeaux. They were much more likely a species called Xerocomus badius (or Boletus badius), known in French as the Bolet Bai and in English as the Bay Boletus. Wikipedia notes that the Bay Boletus, though “often considered a poor relation of the Cep (Boletus edulis) ... is nevertheless highly regarded by some authors...” In Bolet bai or Bay Boletus, the term “bay” describes the chestnut color of the mushroom cap.

Here are a couple of pages from the Larousse des Champignons,
including the page about the Bolet bai mushroom.

After all, as Chris said in a comment yesterday, describing her experiences in the town of Alès, several hours south of Saint-Aignan, French pharmacists might have some mycology training and expertise, but they are not infallible. In Saint-Aignan, the woman I consulted in the second pharmacy just used the term bolet to describe my mushrooms, and then told me how to trim and cook them.

Drying the boletuses on a towel on top of a radiator

Well, I trimmed them but I didn't cook them yet — at least not the caps. I'm drying them. I cut them into slices, and this morning I have them drying on a towel on a hot radiator. We've bought dried boletus mushrooms before, and they are very tasty. I think we got them at the big Tang Frères Asian supermarket in Paris. We are out of them at this point, and the Paris-Store in Blois doesn't have them. They have dried shitakes, and we have bags full of those. They are good, but they are not Boletus edulis, dried ceps.

The mushroom caps ready for slicing...

Make sure you take a look at Leslie's blog, eat.sing.ride, for a topic about Ceps gathered on the California coast. They look beautiful.

...and the stems chopped for cooking with some chopped onion

I sliced the boletus mushroom caps for drying, but I chopped the stems and added them to the meat portion of a Zucchini Moussaka I made yesterday with the remains of the Thanksgiving Day leg of lamb.

29 November 2009

The mushrooms

Here's the verdict. Yesterday morning I put those big mushrooms in a shopping bag and took them down to the Pharmacie Martineau in Saint-Aignan where we always get our prescription medications. Everybody in there —6 or 7 employees — knows us. I was hoping to see Mme Smith, the Frenchwoman pharmacist whose husband is a Scotsman, but she didn't appear to be there.

Instead, old Monsieur Martineau himself came to greet me at the counter. « Bonjour, Monsieur. On m'a donné des champignons et je voudrais savoir si vous pouvez me dire de quelle variété ou espèce il s'agit », I said to him — “Somebody gave me some mushrooms and I'm hoping you can tell me what variety or species they are.”

M. Martineau peered into the shopping bag and then reached in and picked one up. « Ce sont des cèpes, he announced, des cèpes de Bordeaux, Boletus edulis. Ils sont bons. En fait, ils sont très très bons à manger. » — “They are ceps,” he said, “the ones called Bordeaux Ceps, Boletus edulis. They are fine. In fact, they are very very good to eat.”

I thanked him and left, feeling pretty pleased. I was headed to the bank, and there just happens to be another big pharmacy right down the street from the Crédit Agricole. I could see into the shop and there didn't seem to be any customers inside, so I grabbed my bag of mushrooms and took them in for a second opinion.

This time a middle-aged woman seem to be in charge. I told her my story and showed her the mushrooms. « Ce sont des bolets, she said, et ils sont bons. » — “They are boletus mushrooms,” she said, “and they are good.”

I asked her about the yellow spongy material under the caps, where buttom mushrooms have those pinkish-gray gills. “Oh, with ceps, you remove all that before you cook them,” she said. And she proceeded to show me how the yellow stuff, which she called « le foin » — the “hay” is the same word used for the choke of an artichoke — just peels right off.

This is the spongy yellow stuff you remove.
It seems to be turning a little green now.

“Remove the yellow spongy material, trim off the bottom of the stem, slice the cap and chop the rest of the stem. Then cook them. Never cover mushrooms while they are cooking,” she said, “because the water they release needs to evaporate.”

I don't think the second pharmacist said the mushrooms were Bordeaux Ceps, but I'm not sure now. She used the term bolet, and ceps are a member of the boletus family. Some boletus mushrooms are edible, and some are quite toxic. These are safe to eat, and may be very delicious. That's what I've concluded.

After a trip to the bank, I was off to buy some wine over in the village just on the other side of Saint-Aignan. I've been buying wine from one grower-producer over there for 3 or 4 years now. It's the woman of the house who comes out when you drive into the courtyard, and she pumps the wine into your containers for you. Once in a while it's her husband who comes out, but not often.

This woman and I have for several years had an ongoing conversation about our mothers and how they are doing. Her mother lives in Brittany, alone, but with some help in the house and yard. Mine, as you know, lives in North Carolina. She sold her house a few years ago and moved into an apartment. Madame L. likes to get news of her.

Once we completed the updates about how our mothers were both doing well, I mentioned the mushrooms to her. She said an old customer of theirs had brought her and her husband a whole crate of ceps a couple of years ago. She had never eaten them before, she said, and so had never prepared them.

She asked me how I planned to cook them. She always does that. One time when I went over there we talked about eggplants. She said she had planted some in her garden for the first time ever, and I told her that Walt and I grow them. She wanted to know how to cook them.

Another shot of what the pharmacist called « le foin ».

She said the ceps she got tasted very good sautéed and served with a roasted chicken, but that the mushrooms were actually kind of gluants — slimy. I told her I had been worried about the yellow material under the caps, and she said, well yes, that's the part that seemed to produce the gluey liquid. I told her that a pharmacist had showed me how to remove that part, and then we went over to my car and I showed her how to do it.

Voilà. More later.

28 November 2009

Quiet Friday

It is still such a funny feeling to be here in France on Thanksgiving. You can't help but imagine in your mind that all the stores are closed, and that people are staying in to have a big dinner. But no, that would be only us doing that.

And then the day after Thanksgiving, you find yourself thinking that you might go out somewhere, but there will be traffic and lines and crowds. But of course, it's not true. It's just a normal Friday. Life is just chugging along — no big deal, no disruptions.

All the photos in this post are this past week's sunrises.

Friday here at La Renaudière near Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher was a very quiet one. I slept late and then immediately went out for a long walk with the dog when I did get up. I did a blog post. For lunch, we heated up leftover lamb, beans, and carrots from 24 hours earlier.

It's been rainy, but not every day.

There were a couple of American football games on television (we get ESPN Europe), and there was an entertaining movie starring Ben Affleck and Gwynneth Paltrow — the kind of movie you can just sink into and keep up with, even if you aren't paying much attention. Then there was tennis on early in the evening (Djokovic beat Nadal), and later a favorite show called Thalassa that this time was all about Greece.

25 November 2009, 8:30 a.m.

Oh, and the factrice (the woman who delivers our mail) stopped by during the tennis, selling calendars. They do that every year. You choose a calendar from about 30 she was carrying, and you pay what you want to pay for it. I picked one that features pictures of farm animals and gave her 7 euros, which was about all the money we had in the house. As she was leaving, the factrice told me this would be her last calendar visit, because she turns 60 in February and will retire. I congratulated her and told her I recently turned 60 too.

No more leaves on the poplars

What a lazy day it was. One bit of nerdy excitement: we got a new piece of electronic equipment that is a combination DSL modem and router, all in the same little box. I had ordered it earlier in the week, and it came yesterday. It took me all of 15 minutes to hook it up, configure it, and get it running. We are hoping it might make our Internet connection a little more stable. I can't tell much difference so far, but the box itself is nice-looking and that counts because it's out in plain view, for now.

The vineyard early one day in November

So there you have it. This morning I'll go to the pharmacy with those mushrooms, to see what I can find out. At noon, we'll drive over to Montrichard (it's 10 miles) for a lunch of roast goose with new French friends. Rain is supposed to start falling again by noontime, with gusty winds. It's still not cold.

Sunrise yesterday morning, with puddles

We've had more than 100 mm — that's 4+ inches — of rain in November. Earlier in the week, I was talking to a man who works in the wine business here. I said something about all the rain, and he said yes, isn't it great? We are hoping that it will continue. We need a lot more rain this winter to compensate for the long dry spell we had last summer, according to this expert.

Sunrise over rows of grapevines

That's something to look forward to, I guess. Water tables need to be replenished.

P.S. There's an interesting article about two little-known San Francisco neighborhoods, Bernal Heights and Glen Park, in yesterday's New York Times. You might have to register to get the article, but it's free. Walt and I used to live in Glen Park.

27 November 2009

Bay Bolete? Porcini? Cep?

I hope that your Thanksgiving Day was a good one, and that your Thanksgiving dinner was delicious if you had a special one.

Ours was very nice. S. the Englishwoman, now a good friend, and U. the German woman, a new friend, arrived about 12:30. We had some sparkling dry Vouvray wine, to which we added some home-made black currant (cassis from our garden) liqueur, as our pre-dinner drinks. I made prunes wrapped in bacon, cooked in a hot oven for a few minutes, and Walt made smoked salmon roll-ups filled with céleri rémoulade, for our apéritifs. Life is good.

Haricots panachésflageolets and haricots verts
are especially good with lamb.


The lamb might have been considered a catastrophe by some French chefs. It didn't come out as rare as I thought it would. That said, it was delicious — pink on the inside, crusty on the outside, with a good pan sauce made from the leg of lamb's cooking juices, some bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, garlic, and shallot, with white wine.

The quality of the cooking was what it was, but the quality of the lamb was beyond reproach. S. said it was the best lamb she had eaten in many years, and I'm sure she was being sincere and not trying to flatter anybody but the butcher. The young butcher in Saint-Aignan really seems to know what he is doing.

Bay Bolete? Or Porcini?

U. brought us a gift, since it was her first time at our house. She went out into the forest south of Saint-Aignan, which she says is owned by the people who live in the château, and she picked mushrooms. They are beautiful, as you can see from the photos. U. also brought a nice bottle of Bordeaux red wine.

They look good enough to eat!

For the first time in my life, I'll take mushrooms to the pharmacy to have them more precisely identified. U. eats them, she says, so I feel 99% sure they are safe — not toxic. The one thing that surprises me is that they have yellow spongy materiel under the caps, not gills. But I see pictures in books and on the web of good edible mushroom that have the same.

See the greenish-yellow spongy stuff?

I believe, from reading my Larousse guide to champignons, and looking at this Wikepedia article in French, that these are champignons of the variety called bolet bai. That's the Bay Bolete in English. Wiki says they are good eaten young, but these don't look so young to me. I'd better find out more before doing anything with them, and they say the pharmacist can tell you.

Whiter caps and browner caps

Here's why it's so hard to know: these mushrooms look exactly like the one in this photo I also found on Wikipedia, and it's supposedly a Boletus edulis var. grandedulis, which would make it a Cèpe de Bordeaux, one of the best mushrooms you can eat.

Tomorrow: roast goose cooked by some French people we've met over the past month. They live over in Montrichard, and we are going for lunch. I bet it's going to be good.

26 November 2009

Mouton

This is our seventh Thanksgiving in France. Besides being unbelievable — time passes so fast — it's funny to talk about Thanksgiving here, since it is not a French holiday at all. Very few people are even aware of it, and even fewer know that it's today. If you are in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving. Don't eat too much!

Years ago, Walt and I started cooking a leg of lamb for Thanksgiving. We were living in San Francisco back then. Turkey for Thanksgiving and then turkey again for Christmas just seemed like a little too much turkey and stuffing.

Un beau gigot d'agneau français

To mark the holiday but a little differently, we turned it into an occasion to make the classic French Sunday dinner, a roasted leg of lamb with those pale green flageolet beans that you only really find here in France. We could get good lamb in San Francisco, and we could actually get dried flageolet beans in certain supermarkets. They were expensive, but it was worth it once a year.

A supermarket package of dried flageolets verts

There are two categories of lamb available here in France: French lamb and imported lamb. The imported lamb comes from New Zealand, Australia, or South America. It's less expensive, and it's what I buy if I want to make a lamb stew, a tajine with Moroccan spices, or lamb barbecue Kentucky-style.

For a roast leg of lamb at Thanksgiving, we buy a French leg of lamb — un gigot d'agneau from lamb raised in France. Like many French people, we are convinced it has a milder, superior flavor. For one thing, it hasn't been frozen.

Nice scoring done by the butcher
as he prepared the leg for the oven


One day at Intermarché, I asked the butcher if he had any lamb legs. I had seen them advertised at a special low price. They were imported, but fresh. He said he had just a few. He didn't order very many, because a lot of people just wouldn't buy them. They preferred French lamb. I told him I was going to make a Moroccan tajine- type stew with one of them, and he said that the imported lamb was perfect for that, but not for oven roasting, in his opinion.

The other side of the leg of lamb

Chauvinism? Or reality? I'd do a tasting comparison one day but I'm not going to roast two legs of lamb at the same time. What would we do with all that meat?

I think the quality of mutton/lamb has improved greatly in France over the past 50 to 75 years. Here's what I read yesterday in a cookbook called Tante Marie : La Véritable Cuisine de famille — La bonne et vieille cuisine française (Aunt Marie: Authentic Family Cooking — Good Old-Fashioned French cuisine). It was published before World War II, I'm pretty sure (but the book doesn't have a copyright date in it), and it describes how to "tenderize" a leg of mutton or lamb. It says:
« Le mouton, pour être bon, doit avoir la chair rouge foncé et la graisse fine et blanche ; il faut autant que possible qu'il soit rassis, car le mouton trop frais est dur et le goût n'est pas aussi bon. »

"To be good, mutton needs to have dark red flesh and delicate, white fat; if at all possible, it should be hung up to age properly, because mutton that is too fresh is tough and doesn't taste as good."

« Gigot rôti. — Prenez un rouleau à pâtisserie et battez votre gigot pendant deux ou trois minutes, ceci l'attendrit beaucoup... »

"Roast leg. — Take a rolling pin and beat the leg of mutton or lamb with it for two or three minutes, which will greatly tenderize it..."
Tante Marie also says that lamb should be prepared and cooked as she describes for mutton. If you don't know, mutton is meat from an older animal — un mouton, or sheep — and lamb is meat from a young, immature animal — un agneau.

The butcher shop in Saint-Aignan
where we bought the leg of lamb


Well, I'm not going to take the rolling pin to the leg of lamb we bought at the butcher's in Saint-Aignan yesterday. It weighs six pounds and cost 41 euros — that's more than $60.00 U.S. at current exchange rates (and 13.50 €/kg). It's a splurge, and if past gigots d'agneau we have bought in this same shop are any indication, it will be very good without the bashing.

There will be four of us for our holiday dinner, and we'll cook the lamb carefully for guests (and considering the price). Another book, Les Recettes d'une grand'mère et ses conseils (A Grandmother's Recipes and Cooking Advice), by Renée de Grossouvre, says:
« ...beurrez tout le gigot, posez-le dans le plat et, sachant exactement son poids, cuisez-le à four ardent à raison de 15 minutes par livre de viande. ... Surveillez la pendule pour ne pas dépasser le temps prévu, ce qui serait une catastrophe, car un gigot doit être saignant, toute sa qualité en dépend. »

"...butter the leg of lamb all over, put it in the baking dish and, knowing its exact weight, roast it in a hot oven for 15 minutes per pound of meat. ... Keep an eye on the clock so that you don't exceed the proper cooking time, which would be a catastrophe, because the roast leg should be very rare — it's not good cooked any other way."

I don't plan to rub the lamb with butter. Maybe a little olive oil, though. Bon appétit !

25 November 2009

Run off the road

I think Mme Barbier, our barber, depends on me for news of the English-speaking crowd in the village. It's not as if there are very many of us, but she does seem curious. I guess she has to keep tabs on all the social categories: the vintners, the ne'er-do-wells, the church-goers, the pillars of the community, and the foreigners.

She cut my hair yesterday morning. I got there at 9:00, and there was not another customer in sight when I left at 10:00. The phone did ring at least three times while I was in the chair — Mme Barbier, who works alone, has to stop what she's doing and go answer it — and she was making appointments with people for the afternoon, along with one for Saturday. W. is going to get his haircut this morning.

Pictures from yesterday afternoon's walk in the vineyard

When I was driving back home afterward, there were a few other cars on the road that runs along the river from the village back to our road. At one point, I passed three cars in a line, going toward the village. We all had our headlights on because it had been raining. Suddenly, the third car on the other side of the road, a sporty little reddish-orange hatchback that might have been an Italian make, started drifting over the center line. I didn't see the driver, so I don't know if he or she fell asleep or was adjusting the radio or what.

Southern skies

What I did see was the car coming right at me, and coming at me long enough that I had to run off the road to avoid being hit. I was going about 40 mph, and I assume the other car was too. Luckily for me, at the point where it happened there was a wide gravel shoulder on my side. My anti-lock brakes kicked in and I slowed way down, even though I didn't come to a full stop. At least I didn't end up in a ditch or up against a tree.

The sunset yesterday

By the time I was on the gravel, the other driver had caught him- or herself and straightened out the cars trajectory. I looked in my rear-view mirror but by then I couldn't see the numbers on the license plate. The orange cars seemed to slow down but kept going, and I imagined the driver peering into his or her rear-view mirror just as I was peering into mine. What's that old country song? "I was lookin' back to see if you was lookin' back to see if I was lookin' back to see if you was lookin' back at me."

Grapes

So I don't know if the car was a local one or somebody from farther away. But you can bet I'm going to keep an eye out for a bright orange hatchback over the next week or two. We have to go out today, so that will be an opportunity. Such a car shouldn't be hard to spot.

The front end of the Peugeot, intact

It's not often, fortunately, that you find yourself driving along peacefully and suddenly see a car not just straddling the center line of the road but actually coming right at you. It could easily have been a head-on collision.

That was my excitement for the week, I hope.

24 November 2009

Poulet fumé et choucroute

One of the nice products we get here is whole chickens that are smoked and sold fully cooked. The wood used for the smoking is beechwood.

You can eat the smoked chickens cold or you can heat them up one way or another. The directions on the package say to put the whole chicken, unwrapped, in the microwave for three minutes. That doesn't sound very good to me, but putting the whole chicken in a 300ºF oven for 15 or 20 minutes works pretty well.

Poulet fumé au bois de hêtre

Another thing to do is to cut the chicken in half and heat up one half for now, saving the other for later. Luckily, a friend recently sent us a big serrated knife that is just perfect for the job. Thanks, Peter.

Nice knife for cutting a cooked chicken
in half, right through the bones


Smoked chicken would be good with many side dishes, but the one that comes to mind right now is sauerkraut. That's because this is really the choucroute season. I'm not sure if you ever think of eating sauerkraut as a vegetable, but according to the books I read it is very digestible and nutritious. That's my experience too. And it can be delicious, fixed right.

The package from the grocery store

Sauerkraut is shredded cabbage that has been salted and left to marinate and ferment in brine. The salt draws a lot of moisture out of the cabbage leaves, and then the sauerkraut can benefit from long cooking. In France it is usually cooked in white wine. It's mild and slightly sweet when you eat it. I've written about preparing and cooking it before, here, here and here.

Sauerkraut cooked with smoked bacon, onions,
carrots, white wine, and spices


Usually the sauerkraut is cooked with some smoked pork lardons, onions, and sliced carrots, and that's the way I like it. It's seasoned with black pepper, cloves or allspice, bay leaves, and juniper berries. The sauerkraut I bought was labeled as having already been cooked in wine, but I wish I had rinsed it well in cold water and then re-seasoned it myself. It was slightly more sour than I like. Usually, I buy raw sauerkraut, but it seems to be harder and harder to find nowadays. Everybody wants everything pre-cooked.

The other standard accompaniment to sauerkraut is little boiled potatoes. Just boil them whole, in their skins.

I started enjoying sauerkraut when I taught English in Metz,
in the Lorraine province, thirty years ago.


The smoked chicken is a great substitute for the meats that choucroute are usually served with, or for some of them at least. Instead of a big piece of smoked or brined pork, serve the chicken. You can always add a pork sausage or two to dress it up. The sausages served with sauerkraut are usually smoked or fresh pork sausages (like mild Italian sausages, for example) and frankfurters (known also as saucisses de Strasbourg in France).

I was just looking around on the Safeway web site and I see that they sell smoked chicken breast for $9.00/lb., at least in California. Zut alors ! The smoked chicken I bought, a whole chicken, was 3.89 €/kg. That would come out to 1.77 €/lb., and that's $2.65/lb even with the lousy U.S. dollar exchange rate right now. What a bargain!

23 November 2009

Primeur and nouveau wines

Last week, the Beaujolais Nouveau wines for 2009 were released to the public. They're the first wines made with grapes from the 2009 vintage, and it was a very good, dry, and warm growing season.

Another wine that was released at the same time is Touraine Primeur. That's our Loire Valley version of the same thing. After all, the main red grape grown both here in Touraine and over in Beaujolais is the same — it's Gamay. There a weekend events in Tours and Montrichard, and maybe elsewhere, to celebrate the release of the new vintage.

Two cadavres, which means empty wine bottles

We bought a bottle of each wine, just to compare them. I'm not sure I could say which was better, even though they were slightly different. As you can see, the bottles are empty. Of course, we bought them last Thursday...

A vin nouveau (new wine) or vin primeur is a wine released in the same year that the grapes were harvested. It can also be called vin jeune (young wine) or vin de l'année (this year's wine). Such wine is light-bodied, and may contain a little residual sugar, so it is slightly sweet. Nobody has ever claimed that the nouveau or primeur wines are the most refined and subtle of beverages. They need to be consumed reasonably quickly, and certainly not kept long-term in a cellar.

A closer view of the labels

There are 55 appellations (AOC areas) that can produce vin primeur en France. Most is not exported, with the big exception being Beaujolais. Primeur wine can be red, white, or rosé, with different ones authorized in different AOCs.

Such wines were traditionally for local enjoyment, but the Beaujolais marketing people changed that 30 or 40 years ago, when they went into vins nouveaux in a big way. The release date is usually in mid- to late November, two months after the harvest. At that point, the fermentation is complete.

How about a piece of Fourme d'Ambert cheese from Auvergne
with that glass of Touraine Primeur wine?

By the way, we had a very blustery day yesterday and that weather seems to be continuing today. Yesterday afternoon, rain was beating in under the back door, and we could even hear it dripping into the attic at one point. There doesn't seem to be any damage. A strong west wind was pushing water up under the roof tiles, I think.

The weather forecast for this afternoon doesn't look great.
The red arrows show winds from 40 to 70 mph in places.

The good news is that most days this month, temperatures have stayed unseasonably mild. We've only had one or two cold mornings. Low temperatures have hovered around 8 to 10ºC (47 to 50ºF), with afternoon highs around 13 and 17ºC (57 to 65ºF). That's well above normal for the region. But November has been extremely wet.

22 November 2009

Where plants spend the winter

Yesterday a friend brought us some plants that she needs us to keep for her for a while. She's going away soon, and she can't just leave them for weeks on end.

Sliding glass doors

Luckily, we have a little front porch on our house, and we had it glassed in a few years ago, with big sliding glass doors. I put a lot of plants in there at this time of year so that they can spend the winter in good light and without any danger of freezing, or even frost. The doors are double-glazed.

Plants over-wintering in the little sun porch

Unfortunately, our house is too small for us to have a lot of plants inside. There are certainly some, but one problem with putting plants in a house like this one is that there are radiators under all the windows. If you put a plant up close to the radiator, the heat is too much for it.

Smaller plants on shelves in the porch

Some of our friend's plants are beauties, and I'll be sad to see them go when she takes them back. One is an aspidistra that she has had for many years, she said. I think it might have belonged to her mother, who passed on years ago.

21 November 2009

Cauliflower

I know I've posted about cooking cauliflower — chou-fleur in French — on previous occasions. But this is the season, so here I go again.

I was at SuperU in Saint-Aignan the other day, and in the produce department there was a huge pile of just about the most beautiful choux-fleurs I have ever seen. Frais de chez frais, comme on dit. The price was pretty low at 1.20 € per head.

Blanched (partially cooked) cauliflower bouquets

When I brought it home, Walt said, now what are we going to with that. He always says I buy too much food at the grocery store — and he's right, I admit it. But I can't resist picture-perfect vegetables, when I know they are going to taste so good.

I should say we are in a feast period right now. Since Walt came back less than two weeks ago, he made a big batch of turkey-sausage chili using fresh tomatoes from our ripening boxes and dried pinto-type beans that we grew in our garden over the summer.

Gratin de chou-fleur aux lardons

Then he made a pan of cornbread to go with it for its second appearance. And he made pumpkin muffins — twice. In the planning stages, we have choucroute garnie — sauerkraut with smoked meats — and we have bought everything for that, including a smoked chicken. And then later this week, we'll roast a leg of lamb. Gigot d'agneau is what we always eat on American Thanksgiving, which, as you probably know, comes this Thursday.

Now, just yesterday a friend invited us for lunch next Saturday. She's going to cook a goose. I don't know how many people she might be inviting. We have been planning to cook a goose for Christmas this year.

Anyway, all that notwithstanding — I hope we can withstand the calories, and I took a long brisk walk with the dog this morning to try to stay ahead of the game — I needed to cook that beautiful fresh cauliflower while it still was... you know what I mean.

Stir-fried onion, bacon, and cauliflower leaves

I could tell the chou-fleur was fresh because the leaves that envelope the head were so pretty — a nice pale green, and unblemished. I've always heard or read that you can eat those leaves, so this time I cut them off, chopped them up, thick white ribs and all, with a big knife, and cooked them in a skillet with some butter, white wine, and salt and pepper.

The cheese sauce

While those were cooking, I cut up the cauliflower into big florets, and I chopped an onion. Then I sauteed the onion with a package of lardons (smoked bacon chunks) and added the cooked chou-fleur leaves to that. It made a nice stirfry. Separately, I blanched the cauliflower florets in a big pot of boiling water, with salt, just for three minutes, and then let them cool in a bowl so the residual heat would keep tenderizing them. Don't cook them long or they will develop that smell we know so well. At that point, they are ruined.

Arranging the cauliflower on the aromatic base

I put the stirfried vegetables and bacon in the bottom of a big baking dish and arranged the partially cooked bouquets de chou-fleur on top of it. Then it was time to make a sauce béchamel — three tablespoons of butter melted in the pan the vegetables had cooked in, with three tablespoons of flour added. Stirred until it becomes a thick paste. And some milk and some of the cauliflower blanching liquid added alternately and stirred in until it made a nice thick sauce. Add the liquids slowly, half a cup at a time, and stir to smooth out the sauce.

Cheeses for the sauce

Into that some cheese: I had half a pound of mozzarella and some so-called Swiss cheeses, which were actually French Comté and Emmenthaler. Jack, cheddar, etc., would be good. Cut them into little cubes and melt them into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower.

The gratin sauced and cheesed, ready for the oven

Sprinkle the top with more grated Swiss cheese. Bake at 350ºF until the top starts to brown and the sauce is bubbling in the baking dish. Let cool slightly and eat. 'Tis the season.

20 November 2009

Garage scenes

I don't know why I do that. Yesterday, I mean. I had two perfectly good blog topics — nothing earth-shaking, for sure, but fine for a blog like this one — and what did I do? I posted them both on the same day. Now what in the world am I going to post today?

Well, as usual, I have some photos. They are mood pictures — atmospheric, of the season. November. Yesterday morning it was really pretty cold, and there was a spectral frost on the ground, especially on autumn leaves and down the rows of vines. By "spectral" I mean ghostly, like a specter.

November in the vines

So yesterday I posted two perfectly good blog topics as one on a morning when I was rushing around to get everything done. Maybe if I hadn't been in such a hurry, I would have thought more about what I was doing and saved something for today.

Not only did I need to come up with a blog topic yesterday morning, but I also had to walk the dog. And then I was supposed to take the car in for service at 9:00 a.m. That's a lot to get done before nine in the morning.

My plan was to leave the car and then walk from the mechanic's over to Intermarché and do some grocery shopping. I had scanned the weekly flyer, so I knew what was on special. There were several specific items I wanted to get, and then I could just browse around the store, looking for the new and unusual. It would be more fun than sitting in the mechanic's waiting room for an hour or more, reading trashy People-type magazines.

Autumn leaves

Actually, sitting in the mechanic's waiting room can be pretty entertaining. It's like some kind of medieval comedy playing itself out right before your eyes, with a full cast of odd characters. All you have to do is take a seat, spectate, and say Bonjour, Monsieur or Bonjour, Madame to the people who walk in to explain their car problems. I did all that one day last week.

Some customers will come in and bend the head mechanic's ear for 15 or 20 minutes, laughing and joking. Some come in looking completely lost — one older monsieur the other day walked in wearing his green khaki work clothes and his green khaki knee-boots, looking like he had forgotten he was planning to do some gardening that morning.

He said bonjour to me and several other customers who were waiting around. Then he just stood there, off to the side. He made no effort to get in line with the other customers seeking mechanical or pneumatic solutions to their automobile issues. Then he just left. Ten minutes later, he came back in, said bonjour again, and smiled sheepishly. Again, he just stood there for a while, making no effort to get up the the desk to talk to the man in charge.

The sun rises between 8:00 and 9:00 nowadays.

After a while he walked out again. I figured he would be back. Maybe he was going out to smoke a cigarette or something. But he never did come back in. Why he stood around for a total of 20 or 30 minutes without ever even trying to talk to anybody, I don't know. Just timide, I guess. I'm pretty sure he wasn't waiting for a car that was already being worked on. If he had been, he probably would have sat down the way I did and thumbed through some trashy magazines.

Meanwhile, some boisterous people were telling what must have been hilarious stories about their cars, but I couldn't really hear what most of them were saying. One pot-bellied 40ish man in coveralls did say he needed a new tire because somebody had punctured one of his. He said it was the second time that had happened in a week, and he laughed uproariously. If somebody were puncturing the tires on my car one by one, I wouldn't be laughing. Maybe he was just nervous. Maybe I just don't have a very good sense of humor.

Grapes and grapevine leaves, frozen by now

Well, yesterday, I didn't get anything done to the car after all. I wasted my time, in a way, but never mind. The mechanic's office was a madhouse. The man in charge was trying to find the right brake pads for a car that was already up on a lift, its brakes in a million pieces. Evidently, it was impossible to find the right ones, and the head mechanic was cussing and fuming.

« J'en ai marre de cette Europe ! » he was muttering — "I've just about had it with this Europe thing!" I'm not sure what the EU had to do with it, but he evidently knew it did. « Comment peut-on travailler dans de telles conditions ? » he ranted as he raced from the garage back to his desk. At least three of his junior mechanics were scurrying around behind him, trying to help him, and as a result nobody was getting anything done.

There were five or six customers standing around, waiting their turn. One couple with two babies in strollers said they absolutely had to have their car back by 5:00. The man in charge looked frustrated, and then he blurted out that if their car couldn't be done by five, he'd give them a loaner. He'd figure it out, nom de Dieu ! That seemed to satisfy them. Another customer needed new tires, but he couldn't decide which ones to get. I saw at least six cars up on lifts out in the garage.

When I got a chance, I went to the man in charge and said maybe I should come back another day. Otherwise, I thought I might have to spend the day there. My car problem is not urgent — it's a crazy turn signal that starts blinking whenever it feels like it. It stops if I touch the wand, so the repair can wait. I don't drive that much anyway. The mechanic looked relieved, said maybe it would be better to reschedule for next Tuesday. That was fine with me. I just went grocery shopping and came on back home.

It's far more peaceful here.