23 July 2018

Time to make hamburger buns

You might not know it, but hamburgers are all the rage out here in the Loire Valley countryside these days. All the restaurants seem to feature them prominently on their menus now. They're not much like American hamburgers, because they are very thick and cooked very rare. People often eat them with a knife and fork instead of picking them up with their bare hands. Meanwhile, the supermarkets have many shelves devoted to hamburger buns in their bread departments.

If you remember, I made a loaf of sandwich bread last week that I thought had an especially good taste and texture. We eat it mostly as toast with either cream cheese (fromage à tartiner) or butter and confiture at breakfast time. Since we no longer have bread brought to our front gate several times a week by an employee of the village bakery making the rounds, we have started making our own bread more often. We also buy several baguettes at a time in bakeries or at the supermarket, and then cut them up and keep them in the freezer until we're ready to eat them with our lunch nearly every day.

I have the same opinion of the hamburger buns from the supermarket that I have of supermarket sandwich bread. I just don't really like it or the buns. So I'm going to make another batch of the bread dough that I made last week, shape it into buns, and bake those to keep in the freezer. I'm hoping to be able to reproduce the recipe and get a result that will be just as good. Another option for hamburgers is to buy what is called un pain ordinaire — a fairly soft bread that has the shape of a super-sized baguette — and cut it into hamburger-size sections. You can also make sort of square hamburger patties that will fit a section of pain. But for now, I want to make my own hamburger buns. I've actually done it before, but not with this dough that includes some polenta and has such a nice texture.

Another summertime food we've made this year is Greek-style dolmas, also called feuilles de vignes farcies. That's blanched grapevine leaves wrapped around a rice stuffing containing olive oil, mint, raisins, and, this time, chopped almonds. It's flavored with a good amount of lemon juice and zest. We have 10 or so grape plants in our back yard, and we enjoy picking, blanching, and eating the grape leaves. Here's a post about dolmas from five years ago, and here's a 2010 post with a recipe for the filling.

22 July 2018

Spring cleaning, postponed

Yesterday we finally got around to doing some important spring cleaning, at least two months late. Circumstances made it impossible for us to get started on it earlier. We had to get the garden plot prepared and planted in May. We had a house guest for two weeks in June. And I've been feeling lousy for more than a month now. Old age, I guess. Allergies. Skin cancer. I'm just starting to feel better.

When we moved here 15 years ago, we didn't know what to expect of this house. We had only owned one house before, and it was a completely different kind of place. It was built of wood, and was situated on the side of a steep hill in San Francisco. The house was on four different levels. We didn't have, for example, a utility room. From the ground-level garage, we and plumbers had easy access to pipes and fittings that needed maintaining. Importantly, we were on sewer mains that took away gray water from our sinks and showers, and sewage from our toilets.

This house in a hamlet near Saint-Aignan is built completely differently. It's all in brick and concrete block for one thing. It's called a pavillon sur sous-sol in French, but the sous-sol (basement) is at ground level, not below. The sous-sol is made up of four rooms: There's a garage that would possibly be big enough for two small cars. There's an entry hall, which almost feels like wasted space because nobody ever spends any time in it. There's a small, unheated pantry or cellier for storing food and wine — it has a dirt floor. And there's and a big utility room that houses the boiler that heats water for the radiators upstairs that provide central heating, and our washer, dryer, laundry sink, and a shower that we use mostly as a place to rinse off the dog's paws when we come in from our walks in the vineyard. The utility room serves as what people in the northern parts of the U.S. might call a "mud room". In there we also have two freezers that we've acquired, three big storage cabinets that we put in ourselves, and also some sets of shelves for miscellaneous storage. Except for the entry hall, it's all "unfinished" space.

When you have so much unfinished space downstairs that is a kind of basement without being one at all, you know what happens. It fills up with stuff. We only put one car in the garage, so the rest of the space in there holds extra furniture that we just can't bring ourselves to get rid of, along with outdoor furniture, a big storage unit for kitchen things we hardly ever use but don't want to give up, a couple of unused bicycles, recycle bins to outgoing bottles and other recyclables... and on and on. You know what I'm talking about. The photos here are "after" shots of the utility room, and "during" shots of the garage where we hauled all the "stuff" from the utility room for storage while we worked.

And then there are the drains! The house has a whole sewer system built into the concrete slab that it is built on. There are three "manhole covers" called regards in French, which give us access to the concrete conduits that take waste water from, for example, the kitchen sink and dishwasher down to entry-hall level and then under the floor out to the utility room, still under the floor, and finally outdoors, underground. The pipe built into the slab runs approximately horizontally, so it is easy for us to get it stopped up.

So every year we have to open the regards in the utility room and clean then and the concrete conduit out. It fills up with gunk. We have hard water, so calcium deposits combined with grease and vegetable matter combine to cause trouble. Yesterday was our day to clean out the "sewers" — note that water from the toilet has a separate pipe that takes it directly outside to the sewer mains, so that smelly stuff is not part of our problem.

When we came to live here. we had no idea how all this worked. We've learned. We have a power washer we can use to clean the under-floor conduits. It's a stinky, nasty job, but it works. As with most unpleasant tasks, the work gets postponed until it absolutely has to be done. Yesterday was that day. First we had to clean out the utility room. Stuff collects in there. We have rugs on the floor, and those have to come out because we don't want to get them wet in the power-washing process. The rugs themselves get pretty disgusting because the room is, after all, partly mud room. We feel proud of ourselves that this year we actually got the job done before it became a crisis. Everything is flowing. In addition, back in 2003 we were told by the real estate agent that the house had a septic system that would need to be cleaned out every ten years or so. It even says so in our deed to the house.

That was at best erroneous and, at worst, a flat-out lie. In reality, all our gray water ran (slowly) through a very long (150 feet or so) underground pipe to our back gate and then opened up onto a path running down a hill toward the north. The gray water just seeped into the ground, in other words. And the water and waste from the toilet went into a sealed concrete tank that was underground just outside the back door. It had to be pumped out every two or three months, and that got expensive. We did that for three years, and then in 2006 the town had sewer mains put in and we were required to hook our system up to them, at our expense. It was worth it.

These last two photos show the unheated cellier (the downstairs pantry). The third one up is the garage with its red ceiling and junk-covered floor, waiting for us to put the Citroën back in.

21 July 2018

Gratin d'aubergines à la polenta

This could be called moussaka but it's not traditional. Instead of making a thick sauce béchamel (flour, butter, milk) as a topping and adding cheese as well as egg to it to make it set up to a firm consistency as it cooks, I just made a batch of polenta with melted cheese in it. That was the topping for an eggplant gratin made with tomato/meat sauce. Those are slices of pre-cooked potatoes on the bottom. They're optional.

The tomato sauce is made with ground beef and flavored with oregano, onion, garlic, bay leaf, cinnamon, and powdered fennel seeds. I used about 500 grams of beef and two cups of home-made tomato sauce thickened with a few tablespoons of tomato paste (also home-made but that's not crucial). After browning the meat, I poured on the sauce and let everything cook together so that the result was not too watery but, instead, pretty thick.

The most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of the recipe is preparing the eggplant (three large aubergines) before putting it in the gratin dish with the sauce. Most recipes call for slicing the aubergines, salting them, letting them drain for an hour or so, and then frying them lightly in olive oil. That's not what I do. I think the salting is unnecessary. I slice the eggplant, put the slices on silicone pads or parchment paper (papier de cuisson) on cookie sheets, brush them with a little olive oil on both sides, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and bake them in a hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes until they are tender and browned. This time, I had three batches of eggplant slices to cook that way, so it took a while. But it's a lot less messy than frying.

The polenta came from the supermarket. I just made it according to package directions and then added about 100 grams of grated Gruyère ("Swiss") cheese to it, along with salt and pepper. Then I spread it over the top of the layered eggplant and sauce and scattered another 50 grams or so of grated cheese over the top of the polenta. It baked in the oven for about 40 minutes, just to brown slightly. I like this revisited « moussaka ». I posted the original recipe in 2015.

20 July 2018

Une tarte aux courgettes, et un orage impressionnant

Last night around 8:30 we had a very strong thunderstorm, with a lot of lightning and thunder. It had been hot in the afternoon, and the storms were moving up into central France from Spain and the Pyrenees. We happened to be out and had to run home in the rain at 9:00. We'd had apéritifs at a neighbor's house with two women who are my age and have lived here for 40 years or more. We heard a lot of good history about the hamlet over the years, and some good gossip about current and past residents. It was fun.

Today I'll post about a zucchini pie I made a couple of days ago. We are harvesting one or two (or more) zucchinis (courgettes) from our vegetable garden every day. We've made a zucchini lasagne. We've blanched and frozen zucchini rondelles for later. We've been making zucchini stir-fries and what they call poêlées (skillet dishes) in French, with various other vegetables and sauces. Then in our database I found this recipe for a tarte croustillante aux courgettes.

The tarte can be made with North African feuilles de brick, or with phyllo dough, or with a standard pâte brisée pie crust. In other words, you don't have to make dough — just buy it. With feuilles de brick, you first brush a pie plate with a little bit of olive oil. Then you layer in five feuilles one at a time, brushing some olive oil on each one. You bake that in the oven for about 10 minutes to crisp the crust up. You could do the same with layers of phyllo. Or pre-bake a standard pie crust so that it's fairly crispy.

Then you slow-cook some sliced or diced onion at low temperature until the onions are browned and caramelized. You can add a teaspoon of sugar to the onions to make them brown without burning them. A splash of white wine at the beginning of the cooking time can tenderize the onions quickly, but you have to let it all evaporate before you stop the cooking. Add some thyme and a bay leaf, along with salt and pepper. You want all the ingredients for this tart to be dry when they go into the pie shell so that it stays crispy.

I admit I took the whole morning to do all this cooking. Most of it was just waiting, so I could do other things as all the ingredients cooked on low in a skillet. After browning the onions and setting them aside, I browned some slices of steamed potato in the same pan. And finally, I browned a sliced zucchini, a big one, also in the same pan at low temperature, in two batches. I already had a couple of leftover sausages that had been poached and then finished on the barbecue grill a couple of days earlier. So all the ingredients for the tart were cooked and slightly caramelized.

Finally, you layer all the ingredients in the pre-baked pie shell, starting with the onions. On top of the onions I put a layer of zuke slices and then a layer of potato slices. I sprinkled on some grated cheese (but not too much). Then I put in a layer of sausage slices, another layer of zucchini slices, and, finally, a little more grated cheese. The tart then goes into the oven at 400ºF (200ºC) for 15 minutes or so until the cheese melts. Serve it hot or at room temperature.

19 July 2018

Ruines gallo-romanes à Thésée

Thésée is a village on the right bank (north of) the Cher river about five miles from our house and Saint-Aignan. It has a hotel, a restaurant, a pharmacy, a butcher shop, and a bread bakery. The train station no longer provides regular rail service but the autoroute on-ramp is very close by for anybody with a car. That's about it, besides the ruins. The population of Thésée is approximately 1,200.

We have a fond memory of Thésée because when we arrived here to live in early June 2003, our house was basically uninhabitable. It needed a thorough cleaning, and we needed to order appliances including a kitchen stove, a refrigerator, a micowave, a coffee-maker, a telephone, and a washing machine before moving in. So we rented a little gîte to stay in for the first week we were here, while we worked to our own house ready. The gîte was in Thésée. It was a comfortable little place and the people who rented it out were very accommodating and welcomed us and our dog. The price for a week's stay was less than $250.

The ruins in these photos, on the west side of Thésée, date back to Gallo-Roman times. That means the period when Gaulish culture was being "romanized" after the invasion by the Roman Empire and its subsequent rule over all Gaul. This was centuries before the Franks invaded from what is now Germany and turned Gaul into France. The Romans held sway in what is now northern France from the first century B.C. until about the 5th century A.D., when their empire went into decline.

Cities (or towns then, probably) like Tours, west of us, and Bourges, to the east, existed before the Romans arrived, and they became important Gallo-Roman centers nearly two thousand years ago. A major road was built to link Tours and Bourges, and Thésée was a stopping off point for traffic along that road. The Gallo-Roman name of the village was Tasciaca. Apparently, it was easy to ford the Cher river at this spot.

The ruins at Tasciaca are thought to be what's left of a ceramics manufacturing facility that dates back to the second century A.D. The walls of the buildings are nearly 25 feet (7 meters) tall in some sections, and they are remarkably intact. The Gallo-Roman site that includes Thésée extends to the left bank (south of) the Cher river and the village of Pouillé. It includes less well-preserved ruins — only the foundations are visible — of a Roman temple or sanctuary on the opposite side of the river from the ruins in my photos here.

Thésée is also a wine village. As I've said, the potter/ceramicist Claude Gaget in the village of La Borne, 60 or 70 miles east, told me when I met him in June that he drives to Thésée on a regular basis to restock his wine cellar. I've identified a vigneron in Thésée who makes Chardonnay wine, my favorite white, but I have yet to make contact with him and arrange to go there when he's actually at home. I want buy a few bottles so I can see and taste what  the wine is like. One of the first wine co-ops to produce and promote top-quality Touraine wines was — and still is — the Confrérie des Vignerons de Oisly et Thésée cave cooperative (located in the nearby village of Oisly). I used to buy their wines in a shop in our neighborhood in San Francisco back in the 1990s.