31 August 2012

Sunset and some plums

Sunset yesterday, 30 August 2012, at La Renaudière outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. It was about 8:40 p.m.


We had a nice afternoon. Blogger friends Jean and Nick (A Very Grand Pressigny) stopped by on their motorcycles for a short visit. Walt made a clafoutis of sweet mirabelle plums. Here's a recipe on Walt's blog for the classic cherry clafoutis. Just substitute plums or even seedless grapes.


A gift of little mirabelle plums from a neighbor's tree.
They're about the size of large cherries.

There was coffee and wine out on the terrace. It's important to take advantage of the fine days of late summer. Cooler weather is settling in for the weekend.

30 August 2012

Tomates farcies « légères »

I'm not sure what exactly makes these stuffed tomatoes légères, but I know what makes them good. It's the fresh tomatoes from the garden, their liquid, and the basil leaves and fennel seeds in the stuffing. It's also the rice that cooks with them, which takes on a risotto-like texture as it absorbs tomato "water" and white wine.



Stuffed tomatoes — tomates farcies — are a standard French preparation at the end of summer, when the tomato crop comes in. The stuffing is usually ground pork in the form of chair à saucisses (sausage meat), which is seasoned ground pork. They even sell farce à tomates (tomato stuffing) at the supermarket — that's ground pork seasoned with black pepper, garlic, and parsley.



What I used was saucisses de Toulouse with the casings removed. Toulouse sausages are just coarsely ground pork, seasoned with salt and pepper, stuffed into a natural casing. Because I needed more stuffing, I added a package lardons nature — salt-cured pork bacon, not smoked — which I chopped coarsely with a big knife. (You could substitute ground chicken or turkey for the pork.)

Here's the stuffing recipe I was following (loosely), from Marmiton, for six tomatoes*:

• 6 grosses tomates bien rouges, bien mûres
• une petite livre de chair à saucisses
• 250 g de champignons de Paris
• gros oignon
• 1 bouquet de persil
• du riz basmati
• un vin blanc sec
• sel, poivre

Chop the onion, parsley, and mushrooms finely and mix them into the ground pork. It's easy and fast to chop the mushrooms in a food processor, pulsing them several times to get the right texture. Season the pork with salt, pepper if it's not already seasoned. Substitute basil for parsley if you want. Optionally, add a teaspoonful of fennel seeds to the mixture.



Cut the top off the six tomatoes and use a paring knife and a small spoon to loosen up and scoop out the pulp and seeds, which you can put in a strainer over a bowl so that the tomato liquid drips through. Salt the inside of the tomatoes lightly and fill the tomatoes with the meat mixture. Set them in a baking dish, and put the tomato tops back on.

Pour the reserved tomato liquid and enough white wine into the pan so that you have about  half an inch of liquid for the tomatoes to cook in. Puut the pan in a 350ºF/180ºC oven for 30 to 40 minutes.



At that point, spoon several tablespoons (½ to ¾ cup) of basmati or other rice into the cooking liquid in the baking dish. Mix it in evenly as best you can, and then put the dish back in the oven for 15 or 20 minutes more cooking. Adjust the oven temperature as necessary. When the rice is done, the tomatoes will be done too.

Not only do the supermarkets sell meat seasoned as tomato stuffing,
but they also sell stuffed tomatoes, ready-made.

* Here are the stuffing ingredients in English:
• 6 large ripe red tomatoes
• 1 lb. ground pork
• ½ lb. mushrooms
• 1 large onion
• 1 bunch parsley
• basmati rice
• dry white wine
• salt and pepper

29 August 2012

Preview

Blogger has been giving me fits this morning. At first, it wouldn't let me sign on at all. And after I figured out how to sign on, it wouldn't let me upload any photos. I had nearly given up, but thought I'd try one more time.

It's about cooking tomatoes...

So this is just a preview of what I had planned to post today, and will now post tomorrow, if I can.

Part of the 2012 tomato garden at Les Bouleaux (our house)

28 August 2012

Walking home

Often, when we are invited out to lunch, I end up walking home. And no, I don't need any "mad money."

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of driving down to the village of Charnizay in southern Touraine to have lunch with Antoinette and Niall on the terrace of their beautiful and comfortable old longère farmhouse. We took the dog with us, and we spent the afternoon outdoors in beautiful weather eating delicious food.

Callie and I got out of the car here and walked the last mile to get home.

We left to drive home between five and six p.m., which is the normal time for Callie's afternoon walk. Instead of driving all the way home and then walking with the dog, Walt let me off about a mile from the house, at the end of the gravel road that runs through the vineyard.

Admiring the grapes along the dirt road

Yesterday was not the first time this summer that we've followed the same pattern. When we get out of the car and Walt drives away to take himself and the car home, Callie seems confused at first. But she quickly realizes where we are and follows her nose and instincts by heading for our back gate.

The grape leaves are showing the first signs of the impending autumn season.

While Callie sniffs and smells all along the way, stopping to mark the path (if you know what I mean), I take pictures of the sky, the grapevines and leaves, and, at this time of year, the grapes. It's a moment of peace and relaxation for the dog and for me.

Grape leaves and ripening grapes in late August

When I get home after walking that last mile, it's nice to know that I can go in and sit down instead of having to turn around and leave the house for the walk right after arriving. Doing that would turn the walk into a chore rather than a pleasure.


Home

Thanks to Antoinette and Niall (here's a link to their blog, Chez Charnizay) for a fine afternoon, and to Mother Nature for the pleasant weather. Antoinette is a Dutch-American woman, and Niall is a Scotsman from Edinburgh. They've been living in Charnizay for two years now and seem to have settled in nicely.

27 August 2012

Rénovation

Home improvement work continues. It might seem like a detail, but what a difference when you stand at the window and look out. Instead of a cracking and peeling surface just outside, you see a clean, white, smooth window ledge.

In this view, the big metal window shutter in the bedroom is open at an angle
to keep out the direct sun but let in air and light.

It has taken me only nine years to get around to painting the window ledges. I guess I had other priorities until now. Only seven more to go!

Looking out the bathroom window

In France, a window ledge is « un rebord de fenêtre » or « un appui de fenêtre ». Rebord means "edge" and the ones in these photos are the rebords extérieurs. Appui means more or less "support" — the window sits on it and is supported by it.

This is another in my series documenting work we have done and are doing around the house, mostly to be keep a record for myself.

26 August 2012

Italian vs. Southern

So many green beans. That's the story of August 2012. We've been eating them every other day, at least. Plain, or just with butter or olive oil. Cooked and made into a salad with vinaigrette. Or like the ones below: Italian-style — an old recipe from one of my favorite old French cookbooks — or U.S. Southern-style — with lardons (chunks of ham or bacon).


Fresh green beans cooking with onion, smoked pork lardons, and bay leaves

I'm partial to the Southern style, which also resembles French-style cooking in using smoked or salted pork to flavor "stewed" vegetables and even meat stews. French country cooking resembles Southern cooking in many ways, including this one.


We had the beans with the rest of the roast chicken from a couple of days ago.
While the beans were cooking, I just set the half-chicken on top
of them and covered the pan to re-heat the chicken.

You can make a more refined version by wrapping bundles of cooked beans in slices of bacon and then cooking the little wrapped bundles in butter in a frying pan, as in this recipe. Or you can make a more Italian-style version using pancetta instead of bacon or ham, as in Elise's recipe here.

 Haricots verts à l'italienne

And then there are Italian-style green beans, from a French perspective. The recipe I like is from a French cookbook, Monique Maine's Cuisine pour toute l'année, published more than 40 years ago. Italian = tomatoes, of course, and this is a great way to use both fresh tomatoes and fresh green beans from the garden. The other ingredients are onion, garlic, and thyme. Here's a post of mine about it, from 2009.

Both these recipes for green beans can be good served hot or warm as a side dish, or even cold, as a salad, with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice. As for the question of how crispy or how tender the beans should be cooked... well, that's a matter of taste (or is it religion?). Why not enjoy them both ways, on different days? Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that you can combine the two recipes into one: green beans with tomatoes and lardons, plus all the rest of the ingredients.

25 August 2012

Rotisseried chicken with an herb pesto

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: one of the nicest features of the little stoves/cookers that they sell in France is that most of them have a tourne-broche or rotisserie built in. The rotisserie is a great way to cook chickens and other poultry, or rolled and tied roasts of all kinds.

I bought a local chicken from the traveling butcher, Yves Céran of Thésée-la-Romaine, who drives up to our front gate in his market truck on Tuesdays at noontime every week. I asked him a couple of weeks ago (well, Walt did, actually) if he could get us a poulet de Bresse, which is the most famous variety of chicken raised in France — Bresse chickens have an AOC label. I've never cooked or eaten one. Bresse is a area just north of Lyon, a few hundred miles east and south of Saint-Aignan.



Céran said no, he doesn't deal in Bresse chickens. But he said he had the local equivalent, a farm-raised poulet de Sologne. La Sologne is the area of forests and small lakes located between Saint-Aignan and Orléans, grosso modo, and is known for top-quality agricultural products as well as wild game like deer, boars, and waterfowl. Here's a link to the web site of La Ferme le Camp, where the chickens called Le P'tit Noir Solognot are raised.

So earlier this week I asked Yves Céran for a chicken when he came by. I wanted to try one. It was expensive — eleven euros a kilo, which is twice as much as I pay for a farm-raised chicken at the supermarket, and also twice the price of a good farm-raised pintade (Guinea hen) sold by our local poultry vendor at both the Friday morning market in Montrichard and the Saturday morning market in Saint-Aignan. Tant pis. Céran prepared the chicken for roasting, trimming it up and trussing it tightly and neatly with butcher's string.



I decided to make a kind of herb pesto to season the p'tit solognot chicken (solognot (m.) and solognote (f.) are the adjectives that describe things and people from the Sologne region, where Chambord and Cheverny chateaus are located). The fresh herb I have the most of this summer is tarragon (estragon), which grows in a pot in the back yard. Other herbs would be just as good. I cut half a dozen good-sized branches of the herb and chopped them up finely using a big knife. Then I put them in just enough olive oil (actually, a blend of inexpensive olive oil and good sunflower oil) to make a pesto-like preparation, which I flavored with salt, black pepper, and hot red pepper flakes.



I didn't want to undo Yves Céran's neat trussing job, so I used a turkey baster to fill the cavity of the chicken with the tarragon pesto. I had enough left over to rub all over the skin of the chicken before I but the bird on the spit for roasting in the oven. One important thing to do is to put a dish of water or white wine under the chicken in the oven so that steam from the liquid will help cook the chicken. Also, tarragon- and chicken-flavored drippings will fall into the pan of liquid. They won't burn, and then you can boil down the liquid after the chicken comes out of the oven to make a nice sauce (un jus).

Anyway, it was good, and we will eat the rest of it for lunch today, with some green beans cooked with lardons. More about that another day.

24 August 2012

Glass, grapes, and dog runs

Can you figure out what you're seeing in the photo below?

Broken glass in the gravel

It's a section of gravel in our driveway, and what's left of the window that was in the right rear door of the car. The weed-eater threw up a rock yesterday, and that rock shattered the glass. Luckily, I'm covered by insurance. I'm going to get it repaired in just a few minutes.


Above and below, two pictures of Callie on her own personal dog runs. One is in the vineyard — she loved to run up and down the rows of vines. The picture below is the strip of land we recently cleared of weeds and brambles just on the outside of our fence. Callie's exploring this new territory.


Finally, the current state of the grapes at La Renaudière. They are ripening and I'm starting to see which grapes will be turned into red wine and which ones will become white wine. It's very dry now, and the grapes seem to be doing well. No news yet on harvest dates, however. Most years, the vendanges take place in September.


23 August 2012

Stir-fried green beans with shrimp

It's always surprising how some plants in the vegetable garden produce like mad in certain years and give you almost nothing other years. This year, so far, green beans are the stars of the garden. We planted both haricots verts and haricots cocos plats back in June.

At this point, we've starting blanching and freezing the cocos plats (Italian or Romano flat beans) after eating an awful lot of them over the past few weeks. And now we are getting ready to start blanching and freezing haricots verts for wintertime enjoyment, because we're getting more than we can eat even if we have some every day.

 Stir-fry the green beans and pieces of sweet red pepper for just two or three minutes.

One of the best dishes we've had with our green beans was a stir-fry with shrimp, lardons (chunks of bacon, ham, or pancetta), sweet red peppers, and Chinese noodles. I don't really have a precise recipe for it because it was mostly improvised. I can say though that the first step is to peel and de-vein the shrimp (I had about two dozen) and marinate them in a mixture of diced ginger and garlic with some hot red pepper flakes, soy sauce, chopped herbs (basil is good), and white wine (sweet or dry). Leave them in the marinade for a hour or two and then prepare the beans and the sweet red pepper for cooking.

Here are the beans and the shrimp after stir-fying, waiting to be combined with noodles and sauce.

Stir-fry the beans and sweet peppers in canola or some other neutral oil on high heat for just three or four minutes. Take them out of the pan and set them aside. Then stir-fry the lardons for a minute or two in the same pan. When the pork is nearly cooked, toss in the shrimp (don't put in the liquid marinade at this point) and stir-fry them for two or three minutes, just until they stiffen and turn pink. Set them aside with the beans and peppers.

We've had an abundance of haricots verts this month.

Meanwhile cook up about half a pound of Asian noodles, spaghetti, linguine, or other pasta in boiling water until just done. Drain them and toss them in a little bit of vegetable oil to keep them from sticking together.

In the wok where you cooked the beans and then the shrimp, sauté a small onion, diced or sliced. When it's cooked and starting to color, add a two or three tablespoons of soy sauce, a tablespoon of sugar, a quarter cup of white wine (sherry, mirin, or other), and the same quantity of Chinese oyster sauce. Optionally, add some hot red pepper flakes or Asian chili-garlic sauce. Add in the shrimp marinade too. Stir all that together with the onions in the wok and let it cook down and thicken slightly to make a sauce.

Stir-fried green beans and shrimp with lardons, sweet red peppers, onions, and Asian sauces.

Add the cooked noodles or pasta to the wok and toss them in the sauce. Then add the beans and shrimp and toss everything together. Be careful not to let either the beans or shrimp overcook. They just need to heat through again for a minute or two. We thought this was a great success and really delicious.

22 August 2012

Late-harvest greens

Besides house maintenance, another important part of life here in Saint-Aignan — at least for retired people — is gardening. It's amazing how many people have flower and vegetable gardens. We all pay close attention to the weather during the growing season and either fret and complain about it, or rejoice. Rejoicing is better.


One of the autumn garden plots, planted with collard greens, Swiss chard, and even basil.

The growing season starts on May 15 in northern France, where we are. That's the conventional wisdom concerning the last danger of frost. Some daredevils plant certain crops earlier than that, but it's risky. Despite the gardener's best intentions, rainy weather can always delay planting — this year, it was early June before we set any plants out in the garden.
 
Swiss chard, called blettes or bettes in France

May, June, and July rains prevented me from getting all the garden plots even tilled up until August, when the weather finally improved. The first fruit on the tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants we set out in June was diseased and damaged by the damp conditions we experienced well into July. August has saved us.

Collard greens, my favorite green leafy vegetable. It's not available in markets in France.

Since our garden was still small when August began and we weren't sure what kind of harvest we might get from summer crops in 2012, and since their were two plots I hadn't even been able to prepare for planting until August, we decided to plant some crops that would give us an autumn harvest. Those are collard greens (a leafy cabbage), Swiss chard (blettes in French), carrots, and icicle radishes.

We couldn't get basil started in June or July — it was too damp. So now we're hoping
that these plants started in August will give us a harvest in September and October.

Walt planted seeds in small containers and grew them under a cold frame on the front porch, where they got morning sun. I tilled up the plots. The seedlings have been in the ground for a week or 10 days now, and they've been liking the hot August weather. Walt's been watering them faithfully.

Collards and chard can survive the whole winter if there isn't a very hard freeze. Collards, at least, are better if they're harvested after the first autumn frosts — the leaves are more tender and less bitter-tasting. We're optimistic that we'll be picking and cooking fresh greens in November and December, if not beyond.

21 August 2012

Ledges

Window ledges. All around the house, they need to be scraped, sanded, and repainted. I've just started, and I hope the weather will stay dry enough for me to be able to continue working on them in September and October. I bought a can of exterior white paint — acrylic, so everything cleans up with water — at BricoMarché a few days ago.

This concrete window ledge and some of the woodwork under
the window itself sorely needed attention.

This is the window in the utility room, over the laundry sink, on the ground floor. I'd repaint the window frame too but we'll probably have the whole window replaced in another year or two. House maintenance isn't the most exciting topic for a blog post, but it sure is a big part of living this life here in Saint-Aignan.

 A little bit of scraping and sanding, and a coat or two of paint, make all the difference.

Only 10 more ledges to go. It's a good project. It would be nice to have them all done by November. If the weather turns rainy, I can go back to painting radiators. When I was living the working and commuting life in California, it would never occurred to me to undertake this kind of job. I had neither the energy or the time.

When the weather's hot and the windows are open in the evening, many moths
like this one come into the house (no screens). It wasn't as big as it looks here.

Our hot spell has ended. It's still plenty warm (mid-80s F) but not stifling. The mayor of the village stopped by yesterday, on her bicycle, coming home from work. She left a flyer in our mailbox, and I poked my head out the kitchen window and said bonjour. We commiserated about how the worst part of the hot weather was not being able to sleep comfortably. Everybody is tired.

At the same time, the garden has been generous in giving us tomatoes, eggplants, beans, and zukes. It really is summer, finally.

20 August 2012

Saint-Aignan street scenes ( 7 )

Here's one more photo from the big Saint-Aignan summertime flea market. The Marco Polo shop is a gourmet grocery, specializing in imported and exotic spices and condiments, teas and coffees, and chocolates, along with wine and tinned foods.

The bar-tabac next door is Le Lapin Blanc (The White Rabbit), which appears to do a good trade. These two business are just off the main street and just off the market square, so they are in a busy location.

Waiting for the unbearable heat to break today and tomorrow...

19 August 2012

Saint-Aignan street scenes ( 6 )

This was our friends' display at the August 12 flea market in Saint-Aignan. They sold quite a bit of stuff in the morning (a lot of it to us!). The afternoon was less busy, they said, and not everything was sold by any means.

Stuff for sale on the market square in Saint-Aignan

Second subject: the temperature on our front deck and in the loft upstairs hit 36.8ºC yesterday afternoon — about 98ºF (normal human body temperature is 37ºC). The deck faces east, so it was completely shaded when we recorded that temperature at four or five p.m.

There aren't many days when I can see my shadow at 7:30 a.m.
I'm not on stilts, but I am wearing shorts.

It's of course cooler this morning but still many degrees warmer than normal. It's not supposed to be quite as hot today. That's good, because I'm feeling worn out.

Early yesterday morning out in the Renaudière vineyard

18 August 2012

Saint-Aignan street scenes ( 5 )

At the flea market last weekend, I was interested in the set of six little glasses you see in the picture below. I went to the stand two or three times over the course of the morning, but I never found anybody there selling anything. I gave up.

On display, yes — but for sale?

Our high temperature yesterday was 32ºC (90ºF). With low humidity and a slight breeze, it wasn't too bad — even though we are not used to such heat here and are poorly equipped to deal with it. I think today (Saturday) will turn out to be the hottest day.

Weather map for Saturday 18 August 2012

I woke up at 4:00 this morning and came downstairs to open the windows. I threw the Velux windows upstairs wide open too, so that the hot air would be sucked skyward. Sleeping wasn't bad at all, since there's almost no humidity in the Saharan air that is flowing across France from the south.

The "French" pandas live just a mile or two from our house.

This is all much ado about nothing, I guess. France is still suffering the after-effects of the long 2003 heat wave that killed 15,000 people; that's the reason for all the hype and drama. If you were listening all the warnings on the French news reports, you'd understand. "Drink water all day; keep your children in; don't go out in the sun and, if you do, wear a hat; stay in touch with your neighbors, especially the elderly and the infirm..." and so on.

17 August 2012

Saint-Aignan street scenes ( 4 )

The church in Saint-Aignan seen from the market square is a sight that always pleases me. You can see that last Sunday was a pretty day.

The church in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher

We are dreading the next four or five days because the weather is supposed to be extremely hot and dry. Predictions are for afternoon temperatures in the 90s F (mid-30s C), and they say it will stay uncomfortably warm overnight. A canicule (heat wave) warning has been issued. Remember, houses here are not, in general, air-conditioned.

Here's a link to the MétéoFrance map showing the canicule warning area.

16 August 2012

Saint-Aignan street scenes ( 3 )

For the brocante / vide-grenier last Sunday, the streets were blocked off to car traffic. The one in the picture below runs up from the river into the old town and the market square.

"STREET CLOSED" is what the sign says.
DÉVIATION means DETOUR.


15 August 2012

Saint-Aignan street scenes ( 2 )

If you had been here last Sunday, you could have picked up a nice pontoon boat at the annual Saint-Aignan flea market. The church is not for sale, as far as I know.

Asking price: 500 €

14 August 2012

Saint-Aignan street scenes ( 1 )

The streets of old Saint-Aignan, along the river Cher, don't exactly bustle on a Sunday morning — not even on the day of the annual town-wide flea market.

A narrow lane in old town Saint-Aignan

13 August 2012

Saint-Aignan's annual brocante / vide-grenier

On the subject of our five a.m. appointment in town yesterday, the train station was a good guess. But no cigar — and in fact, the local train station is not even in Saint-Aignan. It's across the river in Noyers, and it's not "downtown" over there either. One of the realities here is that the train stations are often not in the center of town but outside, or even across the river.

No, Keir of course got it right (well, nearly), and that's normal because she and her husband live about five miles down the road, on the other side of Saint-Aignan. Our rendez-vous was with friends of ours who live down on the market square in old Saint-Aignan. They recently sold a house that they rented out to tourists, and they had decided to sell the furniture, linens, and small appliances from that house, also on the square, at Saint-Aignan's annual brocante / vide-grenier yesterday. We weren't selling anything ourselves.

There was lots of "junque" for sale on the market square
in Saint-Aignan yesterday


A brocante is a second-hand store. A vide-grenier — literally "empty [your] attic" — is the closest thing we have here in France to an American yard sale or garage sale. On the middle Sunday in August, more or less, the streets of Saint-Aignan are transformed into a big flea market.

A street leading up from the river into old-town Saint-Aignan

Professional brocanteurs (who deal in second-hand goods) bring in truckloads of stuff — furniture, glasses and dishes, old DVDs, CDs, and books — anything, really — and set up stalls and booths in town. Local residents haul whatever they want to get rid of out onto the streets and sidewalks. It's an all-day event, and it's well-attended, judging from the cars parked everywhere, including along the shoulders of the roads leading into town.

I really wanted the little chest of drawers in this picture,
but I finally decided against buying it.

Click on the picture with your mouse to enlarge it.

We had told our friends D., C., and S. that we'd be there at 5 a.m. to start helping them carry out furniture, dishes, and linens and to set up tables for their display. I think we surprised them by being on time. When we walked up to the house (having left the car in a parking lot by the bridge, sort of on the edge of town), D. heard us and stuck his head out the kitchen window on the second floor. He laughed and came downstairs in his bathrobe to let us in.

Looking down a side street in old Saint-Aignan

D. started making coffee and toast as we sat around the table and talked. In a minute or two, C. came down, all dressed and ready, to have breakfast too. She was probably surprised to see us so early, too, but happy about it. Around six, as dawn broke, we starting carting things out. We set up trestle tables. We hauled out shelving units and bookcases to hold small kitchen items and knicknacks. Other vendors arrived and started setting up too, and the first customers started looking the loot over and asking what other kinds of things we would be bringing out of the old house.

I understand that the little house on the square
that we call La Maison Bleue is for sale.


Walt and I had an ulterior motive for arriving so early in Saint-Aignan. We of course wanted to pitch in and help our friends get set up. But we also wanted to have first chance — the "right of refusal" — at some of the things they were selling. We ended up buying a couple of tabletop lamps, a set of eight like-new Grosfillex patio chairs, and other odds and ends.