21 January 2019

Moules (et) frites — toute une histoire

A few weeks ago we decided we wanted to make moules-frites for lunch sometime in January. That's mussels with French fries. We have a good fishmonger who comes from the Atlantic coast of France every Saturday and sets up a big stand at Saint-Aignan's open-air market. We hadn't cooked mussels in a long time, and, surprisingly, in 13+ years of blogging, I have never before posted about cooking them.

The day arrived on January 19, two days ago. Problem was, we had a few hours of freezing rain before dawn that morning. The car, which I had failed to park under the carport out front, was completely iced over. Walt went out for a walk with the dog at about 8:30 and when he came back he said it was seriously slippery out there. The dog had fallen flat on her belly when her feet slipped out from under her on the vineyard road.

I decided it wasn't worth the risk to go out. The road from our hamlet down to the main road along this side of the river is very steep. The freezing rain had stopped but the temperature was still below freezing at 9:00. We made other lunch plans — leftovers. I told Walt I'd go over to the market in Noyers the next day (that was yesterday) because I thought there was a fishmonger there as well.

And I did go. I found no seafood there. I talked to a woman at a produce stand, who told me the fishmonger who used to set up in Noyers on Sundays stopped coming to the market months ago. It's obviously not a market I go to often. I'm out of touch.

I had some shopping to do at the Intermarché supermarket over there, so I headed that way. The fish counter was open in the store, but the selection of seafood was limited. Dismal, really. There were some mussels on display, but they were pretty sad-looking — small and not appetizing, lying there gasping for air or water. Half of them had popped open, and that's not a great sign. I decided to pass. I had about given up on mussels for the time being. But as I was driving across the bridge toward home, I realized I had forgotten to buy potatoes.

And we were out. Oh well, I might as well run up to SuperU and get those, and I'll see if they have any decent looking mussels on display. And guess what — they did. I bought them, and the potatoes.

There was still plenty of time before noon to wash the moules, pick through them to eliminate any with open or broken shells, and "de-beard" those that needed that kind of grooming. Once they were cleaned and sorted, it was a pretty fast process to cook them.

Sauté some onion and/or shallot in butter in the bottom of a big pot. Dump in the mussels, shells and all (of course). Toss in some chopped parsley and celery (one stalk). Grind some black pepper over all, and pour in about a third of a bottle of dry white wine. Don't add salt; the mussels are salty enough. As soon as the shells open up, the mussels are ready. It doesn't take much more than five minutes. Oh, and don't forget to cook some French fries. Voilà — lunch.

20 January 2019

Saucisses à la languedocienne

This weekend I cooked and posted about topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes) à la boulangère. They were good, and we finished them yesterday at lunchtime. Gratins are often good reheated, like other casserole dishes. With the Jerusalem artichokes, we had sausages in a tomato/caper sauce called saucisses à la languedocienne. The Languedoc is an ancient province in southern France, bordered by Provence, the Perigord, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Pyrenees mountains.

This is a recipe I stumbled upon when doing research in the Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia. I was looking up information about saucisses de Toulouse, because I had bought some of those at a local supermarket, Intermarché, a few days earlier. Saucisses de Toulouse are about the plainest sausages you can buy, and that's what makes them good.

 They're also called saucisses au couteau because they are, at least traditionally, made with pork (shoulder and lean breast) that has been chopped with a knife, not run through a grinder. The meat used for Toulouse sausages is simply seasoned with salt and pepper. Saucisses de Toulouse are good served with beans, as in cassoulet (a Toulouse and Castelnaudary specialty). They're good baked in the oven, fried in a pan on top of the stove, grilled, or poached in water or wine.

 They come in two forms: saucisses portion (classic sausages, which is what I had this time), or saucisse brasse — a long section of bulk sausage that is often presented wound into a spiral, sometimes called en escargot (snail-style — no, there's no snail meat in it!). That's what's pictured here. The escargot-shaped sausage can be held together for cooking by running two long skewers through it, perpendicular to each other in a cross shape.

The recipe I happened upon in the Larousse Gastronomique calls for pan-frying the Toulouse sausage in goose fat (butter, oil, bacon fat work fine too) for 15 to 20 minutes, covered, along with some diced garlic and some herbs (thyme, bay leaf...). Turn the sausage(s) once during the cooking time and make sure the meat is completely cooked through. Then take the sausage out and reserve it in a dish in a warming oven.

Degrease and then deglaze the frying pan with a couple of tablespoons of vinegar, which should evaporate almost completely. (Use wine if you don't like vinegar, I say.) Pour a cup or so of vegetable or chicken broth and half a cup of puréed tomato into the pan. Spoon in two or three tablespoons of whole capers (from a jar, packed in vinegar or brine) and let the sauce reduce until it's as thick as you want it to be.

Spoon some the sauce over the reserved sausage, serving the rest separately. Serve hot. This tomato-caper sauce is also really good served with pommes de terre or topinambours boulangère, and it would be good with frites, sautéed potatoes, or purée de pommes de terre. Also rice, polenta, or pasta.

Here's the recipe for the sausages from the Larousse Gastronomique (it's in both the 2007 electronic version of the book and in the 1967 printed edition). It calls for a long piece of saucisse roulée en escargot (2.2 lbs.).

Saucisse à la languedocienne

Rouler en spirale 1 kg de saucisse de Toulouse et la piquer avec 2 brochettes croisées pour qu'elle garde cette forme.

Chauffer dans une sauteuse 3 cuillerées à soupe de graisse d'oie et y mettre la saucisse. Ajouter 4 gousses d'ail émincées et 1 bouquet garni. Cuire 18 min à couvert ; retourner la saucisse à mi-cuisson. L'égoutter, la débrocher, la dresser dans un plat rond et la tenir au chaud.

Dégraisser puis déglacer la sauteuse avec 2 cuillerées à soupe de vinaigre, puis mouiller de 30 cl de bouillon et de 10 cl de purée de tomate ; faire réduire. Ajouter 3 cuillerées à soupe de câpres au vinaigre et 1 cuillerée à soupe de persil ciselé. Mélanger et napper la saucisse de cette sauce.

19 January 2019

Pourquoi « boulangère » ? « Jérusalem » ? « artichaut » ?

Walt came back from the supermarket a couple of days ago with a bag of beautiful topinamboursJerusalem artichokes. What are they? Well, they are the roots of a North American sunflower plant. The scientific hame is Helianthus tuberosus. It's often called a sunchoke, and the root is a tuber that, cooked, tastes like an artichoke heart to some people. The tuber looks sort of like a ginger root.

Why is it named "Jerusalem"? Well, that might be a corruption of an Italian word for sunflowers, which is girasole ("turns with the sun" — tournesol in French). Blame English speakers for the misunderstanding. Another theory is that the Puritans who crossed the Atlantic to settle in the New World believed that their colony would be seen as a "New Jurasalem" and somehow the name came to be applied to this new kind of sunflower they had found. Native Americans knew it was a good food.

Anyway, I decided to cook them à la boulangère. Potatoes and even roasts like mutton used to be, and still can be, cooked that way. These are dishes that were cooked in bakers' ovens in France in the days before people had ovens in their home kitchens. In the morning or afternoon, when the day's bread had been baked, the oven was still hot. People — whether it was the baker's wife (la boulangère) or neighbors and customers — could take their prepared roasts and vegetables and have them cooked in the hot bread oven.

Here are the topinambours completely cooked. Below, they have just gone into the oven.

I found a French recipe on the internet after I had the idea to cook the Jerusalem artichokes this way. I've made pommes de terre à la boulangère numerous times over the years, but I had never tried it with topinambours. The author of the recipe I found uses the term « boulangère » as a noun, which was new to me. But why not?

The first thing to do is peel the topinambours (or potatoes, or a combination of the two) and cut them into thick slices. Optionally, slice up an onion and a garlic clove or two as well. Then sauté all the vegetables in a big flying pan to start them cooking and brown them lightly. Use butter, cooking oil, bacon fat, or duck fat as the cooking medium.

When the vegetables are starting to brown and tenderize, dump them into a baking dish and spread them into an even layer. Add a bay leaf and some sprigs of thyme or other herbs. Then pour enough hot broth (chicken, vegetable, etc. — your choice) to not quite cover the layer of "sweated" vegetables. (The boulangère is like a gratin dauphinois made with broth instead of milk.)

Put the pan, uncovered, in a hot oven and wait 30 minutes or so for most of the liquid to evaporate and for the slices of topinambour or potato to brown as much as you want them to. It's pretty simple. Salt and pepper the boulangère after the broth has evaporated because you don't want it over-seasoned.

18 January 2019

Le hameau en trois photos

My title says "the hamlet in three photos" — but this is actually only about half of the hamlet, which is made up of nine houses. There are four houses in the first image. You can see what wintertime looks like here this year. Our house is the one that the road appears to be heading toward. You're seeing the back of the house, which over looks the yard.

I took these photos three or four days ago on a very warm (for mid-January) afternoon. I moan about everything being gray and sad-looking in the Loire Valley winter, but you can see it's not really true. It's browner than it is gray, at least when there's no fog. And there are reds and greens and blues too, though muted. It's pretty here, even in the dead of winter.

I was on my way home after a walk with Tasha in the vineyard. I take an afternoon walk with the dog every other day. I also take a morning walk with her every other morning. Walt does the same, but on opposite days. When the weather is good, I walk farther than on very cold or very wet days. But rain doesn't stop me, or Walt either, from going out for a daily walk.

Obviously, going out for a walk every day helps keep cabin fever at bay, or at least reduces its intensity. Photography, tennis or films on TV, cooking, trying to organize things on my computers... those are wintertime activities. It's important to have a project and to feel like you've accomplished something despite the dark, short days and less than ideal weather.

17 January 2019

Winter greenery

We haven't yet had a flake of snow this winter. It's been coldish on some recent days, but we've had very few days with frosty mornings — yesterday was the rare exception. However, this morning it's 6ºC (at least 10ºF) warmer than it was yesterday morning at the same time.

The other day (Tuesday, Jan. 15), when I took these pictures of the vegetable garden, it was downright warm outside, considering we're in mid-January. It felt more like early April. Today, I thought I'd do a report on how my winter greens are growing.

First, let me say that the collard greens were a disaster again this year. Maybe I planted them too late (end of September). They were immediately attacked by pests that ate all the leaves. So no pictures of those — I wonder if I'll ever be able to harvest beautiful collard plants like the ones I harvested in February 2015.  Today I'll focus on the kale instead.

By mid-October, the kale plants — called lacinato, dinosaur, or black Tuscan kale — had already grown pretty tall. Look at this post from back then. Pests, probably snails and slugs mostly, chewed all the leaves off the collard seedlings, but the kale was too tough for them. I had hoped for some cold weather to kill caterpillars and make the gastropods go into hibernation, but no luck with that.

The Swiss chard, also attacked by pests, hasn't fared very well either. But I'm optimistic that the plants will bounce back and grow tall and bushy as the days get longer. A year or two ago, I had some really beautiful chard plants in March and April.

One other green plant, while not one you can eat but you can enjoy cooking with, is bay laurel. I dug up a volunteer plant last summer and planted it in a pot. I meant to get it planted in the ground by November, but rainy weather prevented me from doing it. It's doing fine in its pot, which I set out on the tarps in the garden plot to help keep the tarps from blowing away. If we have a really hard freeze, I can always bring it into the greenhouse.

16 January 2019

Éclairs et flans : pourquoi ces noms ?

Why is un éclair called that in French? The primary meaning of the word éclair is "lightning bolt" or "flash of lightning" as during a thunderstorm. What does that have to do with a tube-shaped piece of cream-puff pastry filled with chocolate- or coffee-flavored pastry cream?

There are two theories about the origin of the name. One is that the pastries called éclairs are so delicious that people eat them really fast — in a flash. Lightning fast. Another is that éclairs, invented by the chef Antonin Carême of Valençay and Napoléon fame, were such a hit with the French that they electrified the country like a bolt of lightning. (Carême also invented the cream-puff concoction called profiteroles.) See this web page in French for more information about éclairs, flans, and other pastries.

And what is a flan and why is it called that? Technically, a flan is a metal disk that is destined to have a design pressed on it. In pâtisserie, a flan is a kind of cream pie. It's a pastry shell filled with custard (eggs, milk, sugar, and flour or cornstarch) and then baked. It's the shape of the tart that is reminiscent of the metal flan. The term seems to come from old German, where a flado or flaon was a kind of pancake. The flan came to France from England, however, where it is called a custard tart. It crossed the Channel in about 1600, during the reign of Henri IV of France, some say.

15 January 2019

Nos deux galettes des rois en 2019

Yesterday I went down to the village bakery to get some pastries we could have as desserts this week. I picked out two éclairs, one iced with chocolate cream and one with coffee cream. I'll have to take photos of them. I also picked out two parts de flan — wedges of custard pie. Then I noticed that there were several different galettes des rois on display at the other end of the bakery counter. The least expensive was a galette à la frangipane (to serve four people) and cost nine euros. What the heck, I thought, I'll spend the money and we'll see how good it is.

It's been years since we've bought a galette des rois, the traditional "kings' cake" that people in France eat on January 6, which is the Catholic holiday called the Epiphany. According to legend, that's the day the three kings or "wise men" arrived in Bethelehem from the East bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child. Along the North Carolina coast, people used to celebrate Christmas on January 6, I've been told — they called it "old Christmas." Anyway, we haven't bought a galette in years because Walt makes them. From scratch, including the puff pastry and the almond cream called frangipane that he fills them with. Here's the one he made this year.

The cake Walt made was obviously much fresher than the baker's galette des rois when we ate it. It had a "cleaner" taste, I thought. Maybe the baker's cake had been refrigerated since January 6. It wasn't bad though, once I heated it up on the low setting in the microwave oven for a minute or two to soften the butter in the pastry and the frangipane a little bit. It obviously cost three or four times as much as the cost of the ingredients used to make the home-made galette.

14 January 2019

Choux de Bruxelles glacés soja et miel

I was poking around in SuperU when I spotted the Brussels sprouts. There was a big bin full of them and they were about the prettiest sprouts I'd ever seen. I had to buy some (at 2.60 euros per kilogram, or about $1.50/lb.). I figured they'd be good with the capon I was planning to cook the next day.

But how would I cook and season them, since I was glazing the capon with honey, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and sriracha? I vaguely remembered that I had once seen recipes on the web for Asian-flavored, stir-fried Brussels sprouts, so I did some googling.

What I came up with was two recipes for roasted Brussels sprouts tossed in a soy-honey marinade. And it turned out to be pretty much the same marinade/basting sauce I was using on the capon. Here's one recipe: Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts. And here's the other one: Crispy Asian Brussels Sprouts. There's the result on the right.

Since I had the capon in the oven for more than three hours the next morning, I really couldn't roast the sprouts in there at the same time. So I decided to steam them first. Then, when the capon came out of the oven to rest before being carved up, I could turn up the oven temperature and then roast the already cooked sprouts in there. It wouldn't take long. I didn't need to trim the sprouts at all before steaming them. Then I just cut the steamed sprouts in half and arranged them cut-side-down on a baking sheet.

Finally, I could toss the hot steamed and roasted sprouts in as much of the honey-soy sauce as I wanted. And they were good. They were slightly browned, but not burned or even really crispy. They had good flavor, a nice texture, and a sweet-and-salty (sucré-salé) glaze, just as the capon did. And I could spoon on more sauce at the table if that seemed like a good idea.

13 January 2019

Un chapon laqué

I cooked a capon yesterday, and I decided to do it laqué — glazed with a syrup made using honey and soy sauce, with other flavor ingredients. Here's what it looked like. I based it on this recipe, but I didn't make the thickened gravy. We just had the jus from the roasting pan and the remaining marinade as sauces at the table.

I cooked the capon (a neutered, fattened chicken) on a rack over a pan of water in a slow oven for 3 or even 3½ hours, basting it every 30 minutes or so with some more of the glazing syrup. I started it at 160ºC (about 325ºF) and gradually turned the heat down as the bird browned.

The history blurb on the internet about the company that raises and markets these capons said that on a trip to the U.S. in the 1960s the founder realized that Americans ate turkey year-round, not just during the end-of-year holidays. He wanted to introduce that custom to France, and later he diversified his production.

Yesterday, when the bird — especially the drumsticks — started getting pretty dark brown, I not only reduced the heat but I covered the capon loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil. I kept basting it, and replenishing the water in the bottom of the roasting pan. The capon drippings, water, and glazing syrup turned into a nice sauce.

Yesterday's meal was pretty simple. We had only two side dishes: a piece of the duck liver, cranberry, and pecan stuffing that I had made for our Christmas dinner and put in the freezer, and some glazed Brussels sprouts. More about those tomorrow.

I bought the capon, a 6½ lb. bird, right after Christmas when it was on sale at about $3.00/lb. (€5.90/kg) — about half the price of the guinea fowl capon we cooked for Christmas. This capon stayed in the freezer for a couple of weeks, and I thawed it for 48 hours in the refrigerator before roasting it.

12 January 2019

The main portal of the Benet church

This is a series of photos of the front of the Église Sainte-Eulalie in the village of Benet in the Vendée département in France. It's just outside the town of Niort.

In putting the photos together, I've gone from the longest view to the closest, focusing on the incomplete statue on the right side of the church's main portal.

This Romanesque-style part of the church dates back to the 11th century, according to the Monumentum web site's page describing it.

The Monumentum site also shows a series of much older photos of the church.


Today I'm going to be cooking a glazed (or "lacquered") capon in the oven. It's a fattened chicken that weighs about 6½ lbs. (nearly 3 kg). The glaze/basting sauce will be made with honey, soy sauce, ginger, hot red pepper, vinegar, and sesame oil. With it we're going to have oven-roasted Brussels sprouts tossed in the same sauce.

11 January 2019

L'Église Sainte-Eulalie à Benet en Vendée

On the Tuesday after we arrived in the Vendée, we took a drive into the Marais poitevin, a long-settled and formerly marshy area with many canals and many villages with old churches. This one is in the village of Benet (pop. 4,000), which is now a a suburb of the small city of Niort (pop. 60,000) just 10 or 11 kilometers to the east.

The church in Benet was built in the 12th century. It was a Romanesque church but it seems that much of the building collapsed in the 13th century. The only part of the 12th century building remaining is the fronton (façade), including the main portal and the detail you see in these photos.

The rest of the church as it stands today was built in the 14th century and is Gothic in style. For real connoisseurs, it's much less interesting than the older fronton. In the image above, that's a dragon that the headless human figure is standing on. Back in October,  when we were staying in a gîte rural about 15 miles west of Benet, I posted a couple of photos I took around and in the church, but I never posted these.

I imagine that all these nonetheless impressive features and sculptures inside the Benet church  are much less ancient than the building itself. Still...

Meanwhile, back here in Saint-Aignan, we've had a couple of fairly sunny days —especially the mornings — this week.  However, the weather forecast for today says we should expect rain and even snow, or "a wintry mix" as we call such precipitation in the U.S.

It's supposed to rain all weekend, actually, or at least be cloudy with showers. Ah, winter in northern France! We just have to deal with it. Some expats I've known just decamp back to their country of origin at this time of year. That would be just too much trouble, expense, and dislocation for us. We just have to entertain ourselves as best we can indoors (plus take damp or frosty walks with the dog).

10 January 2019

The church at Auzay (Vendée)

We had been in our Vendée gîte for four days in late October, and the day before we had made the long drive to the Île de Noirmoutier and back — four hours round-trip. We were tired. So on this Thursday afternoon, October 25, we decided to drive just the short distance over to the neighboring village of Auzay and take a nice, relaxing walk with the dog.

We parked the Citroën in front of the village church, L'Église Notre-Dame-de-la Nativité. I don't really know much about it, and information on the web is scarce. On the left in the photo is the monument to people from Auzay (pop. 500 or so) who died in World War I and World War II. The village and countryside can be descibed as "bucolic."

Here are three photos of the church in Auzay. It looks like it has recently been cleaned up. Sandblasted, probably. The stone is very white. This is a Romanesque church that dates back to the 11th century and has been modified and enlarged over the centuries.

At this point I'm winding down my series on our trip to the French Atlantic coast between Brittany and Bordeaux. As I've said before, it's comforting to look at all these photos of blue skies and bright sun. The news here yesterday morning was running a report about Paris specifically, and the northern part of France in general, lamenting how skies have been overcast and the weather foggy and gloomy for a couple of weeks now. They said that Paris has had an average of one minute of sunshine per day since the beginning of the month. People are getting fatigued and depressed. The payback for enduring these short, dark days will come as we move toward May and June, with many long hours and days of sunshine and daylight.