31 October 2008

Stay in and cook

Weather forecasts call for rain all weekend. So we are hunkering down. No need to go anywhere. I may be setting a record here for the most days I've ever stayed at home without going out in the car at all. I was able to have a nice walk with Callie yesterday afternoon. A steady, almost heavy rain is falling this morning.

Toussaint 2004 — cleaning up ghe garden at La Renaudière

I'm glad we got so much garden clean-up work done. Even though we didn't finish everything, we are in good shape. And the good news is that it's supposed to be sunny on Monday. I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that it also started raining out there yesterday or the day before. A weather expert expleained that the rains always start in Northern California in the "World Series/Halloween" time-frame. Here in France rains start at Toussaint. Always have, as far back as I can remember (and that's 40 years).

In 1989, Walt and I took a late-October driving tour around the south of France, starting in Grenoble and passing through Nîmes, Montpellier, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Cognac, Poitiers, and... Saint-Aignan. The weather was gorgeous — warm and sunny nearly the whole time — until we got to the Loire Valley. It must have been very early November and it turned gray and rainy. We stopped in Chartres before arriving in Paris, but it was disappointing because there was no sunlight streaming through the amazing stained-glass windows.

Cemetery flowers that won't fade

I just looked back at 2003-2007 pictures and blog postings from around November 1. I realized that this time of year in Saint-Aignan seems almost foreign to me because the last time I was here in early November was in 2005. And that year good friends from California were visiting, so I was too busy to notice the change of seasons.

In 2006 and 2007 I was in the United States on November 1. Last year I was in Alabama, Georgia, and then North Carolina. I think the weather was beautiful. In 2006, Walt and I were in Alabama, Kentucky, and Illinois in early November. It was cold and rainy there too, some days, but we were on the road, exploring new areas, eating new food, and not worried about the damp chill.

So today I'm going to make roasted chicken with a peanut sauce. Thanks to Loulou for the idea and recipe. I'm going to use peanut butter from a jar that I got at the Asian supermarket called Paris Store in Blois. Along with soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, and hot red peppers. The chicken and sauce should be good with Asian noodles.

Toussaint 2005 — 'mums in the cemetery at Mareuil-sur-Cher

Today is La Toussaint, or All Saints' Day. Tomorrow is The Day of the Dead. This is the time of year when people visit the cemeteries and clean up the graves and tombs of loved ones who have passed on. I saw in the paper that there are guided tours of the cemetery in Blois this weekend, highlighting the most beautiful tombs and mausoleums.

Since we don't have any tombs to admire or refurbish, we'll just stay in and cook.

Because it's a holiday, the boulangère won't be making her usual Saturday bread deliveries. That's OK. A lot of the bakeries will be open this morning and tomorrow morning. Same with the supermarkets. Not that we need anything, except some sunshine.

An early blast of cold air

I've been blogging for three years now. Time flies — my first post was on 20 October 2005 — and for a while now I have been posting daily. As I've said before, my two motivations in blogging have been to find an outlet for the pictures I love to take, and to help fellow Americans and others see what life (or "a life") in the French countryside is all about. There is much beauty to admire here, and much good food to be cooked and eaten.

The view from the kitchen window yesterday morning —
a dusting of snow on the neighbors' rooftop

The pictures in this topic are pretty much my view of the world these days. All were taken out of my front windows. We are having a pretty fall, but not as pretty as the autumn of 2003 (here's a link to some 2003 pictures). And we are having cold weather early. As you know, it snowed yesterday — in October. Last winter we didn't have any snow at all all winter long. However, today's weather in no way indicates how cold or mild our winter is going to be. Only time will tell that.

The maple trees off our front terrace, and our woodpile

When I say this is my view of the world, I mean it. I haven't been out of La Renaudière since last Saturday. In other words, I haven't started the car in a week. I've walked the dog once a day out in the vineyard — with the exception of yesterday morning because it was snowing.

The snow didn't stick. The temperature never went all the way down to 0ºC. The low was 1.1, I think, and by afternoon it was 5 or 6. This morning's low was higher than yesterday's high. We had a hard rain shower early this morning, but no repeat of the cold blast of air we got yesterday.

View through a window pane

I appreciate all your comments yesterday. Remember, I didn't say I was going to stop blogging. I guess what I was saying was that I wanted to apologize for being boring. And explain why I was posting translations of local newspaper articles. Since I haven't been out of the house for a week now, I don't have much to report on when it comes to local life.

Walt just took the car out — we had actually put it in the garage when freezing temperatures and precipitation were predicted — to go shopping up at SuperU. We don't need much, but he has a couple of sale items he wants to check out so he went today. I decided to stay home. I'm going to make soup for lunch.

Another view from the kitchen window

I appreciate the comments from the "regulars" — you know who you are, and I know many of you personally, not just virtually. I also greatly appreciate the comments from people I don't know personally, including those who have never commented before.

I get statistics from an outfit called SiteMeter that I use to track visits to the blog. In three years the blog has been "hit" over 91,000 times. If you open the blog 2 or 8 or 20 times a day, each time is recorded as a visit, so "visits" or "hits" don't equate to a number of individual visitors or readers. Walt and I have set up Blogger to ignore all the many times a day we open our own or each other's blogs, so our visits don't get counted. That keeps the number down to a level that's a little more realistic than it would be otherwise.

We really need to have double-glazed windows
put in all around the house.

Right now, Living the Life in Saint-Aignan is opened about 140 times a day. The average length of time a visitor stays is about three minutes. I also can get a report showing me where visitors are located — in what city and country. There are some other statistics too, having to do with the operating systems visitors are running, the resolution of their monitors, and so on.

Blogger limits the amount of storage space on the server I can use for my blog photos. It's 1024 MB, and I've used about half of my allotted space now. That took about three years, so I figure I have another three years of blogging ahead of me.

They say a work of art is never finished, only abandoned. I'm not comparing my blog to a work of art, but abandonment really is the only way to end a blog. There is no natural conclusion, no happy or sad ending, no wrap-up.

Here's a movie of our excitement for the week:
big fat snowflakes falling at La Renaudière

By the way, our neighbors the mayor and her husband have been back nearly all week. I've seen him a couple of time but not her. I imagine her duties as mayor meant she had to hit the ground running on their return. He, J-M, said that he would be busy processing a few hundred photos from the trip and that we would be invited to some kind of get-together soon to see the photos and talk about the trip.

About the U.S. presidential election, I'll say this: I would really love to be able to vote in my native North Carolina this year. You understand. But it's been decades since I last lived there, so I'm not registered.

30 October 2008

Laying eggs

Yesterday I opened up a blog I have read regularly for a while now only to learn that the author has decided to stop posting. It was called "L.A. en vie" and the writer, Sedulia, has an inviting writing style and an interesting point of view. She said she felt like she didn't have much to say any more. She's at least the third blogger I know of who has pulled the plug recently.

Callie stalking something

Sedulia, an American, moved from Paris to Los Angeles a year or more ago after spending many years in Europe. When she lived in Paris, she published the blog called Rue Rude — you might remember it. She said she would post there again on future trips to Paris.

Every once in a while, we all feel the way Sedulia does right now. It comes in waves. These days, I don't have too much to say either. Everything I write seems to me to describe a fairly humdrum existence. I'm not complaining or feeling sorry for myself — every day I'm busy with garden and yard work, cooking, house cleaning and organizing, dog walking, and reading blogs and newspaper articles on the Internet.

The vineyard yesterday afternoon

But I think I've described all that over and over again on this blog. I refuse to start writing about U.S. politics, even though that would be a natural thing for an American to do at this point in time.

You're probably a little bored with my topics, as am I these days. But I don't plan to stop posting. Soon something interesting will happen around here and I'll write about it.

Meanwhile, I hope these local newspaper articles will give you a little of the flavor of local life here in the Loir-et-Cher department of France. Here's one from yesterday's paper. As you'll see, it's not about elections, murders, financial crises, or any of the other big subjects of the day. Ce sont des petites scènes de la vie de tous les jours comme on la connaît en Val de Loire — little word paintings of everyday life in the Loire Valley.
Market seller doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket
With her farm products, Sandrine Ruby respects the cycles of nature.” The items she sells, including goat cheeses and eggs, are guaranteed to be “garden-fresh.”

For eight years now, faithful customers have been returning to the Coty neighborhood market in Blois on Wednesdays to see the young farmer from the Ferme aux oiseaux — The Bird Farm — at Les Hermites in the Indre-et-Loire department. Nicole, a retiree, is one of them. “Here, the vendor is a nice friendly person and the quality is guaranteed, with products that are a good value for the price,” she says

“We have about a hundred goats in our pasture,” says Sandrine. “Our cheeses are made exclusively with their milk, and we age the cheeses naturally. I make cheeses in the shape of logs, disks, and the little round ones called crottins. Sometimes I add some color by rolling the cheeses in herbs or chopped walnuts. In season, I sell chicken, quail, duck, and turkey eggs, all of them “fresh from the garden,” Sandrine says with a chuckle. The amount of cheese she makes depends on the amount of milk her goats produce at different times of the year.

“In November, we don’t milk them because they are getting ready to kid. With eggs, it’s the same thing. We respect the natural cycles, and we don’t force-feed our animals to increase production. So today, for example, I don’t have any chicken eggs to sell because the hens didn’t lay any.”

From time to time, Sandrine also brings to market ostrich eggs that have been laid by friends’ birds.

“An ostrich egg is equal to 24 chicken eggs. And it contains less fat so it’s good if you have a cholesterol problem,” according to Sandrine, who also sells honey and oil produced by another friend. “That helps liven up my display,” she says.
I just opened the back door to see what's going on out there. It's snowing. More precisely, there's a mix of rain and snow falling. It's not sticking. The temperature is just a degree or two above freezing. Not even Callie wants to go outside in that.

29 October 2008

Fruits and vegetables

Here at La Renaudière, the outdoor furniture and plants have been brought in for the winter. The heat is on. The temperature outside is at freezing. The sky is clear but there's a layer of fog over the river and there's a big cloud bank to our north. It's supposed to rain (or worse) this afternoon.

Meanwhile, I've been enjoying the Nouvelle République newspaper's articles about the Romorantin Food Festival. Here's another one.
Frédéric Junault is the champion

Frédéric Junault of Cheverny in Sologne, who now resides in Paris, is France’s first champion in the art of fruit and vegetable sculpture.

The Romo Food Festival sponsored the competition over the weekend. Five sculptors spent the day on Saturday creating artworks around compulsory themes: a pheasant, a basket of fruit, a cocktail and decorated glasses, a sculpted melon, and a bouquet of flowers.

Frédéric Junault is a professional. He sees fruits and vegetables as a passion, a calling. “All too often fruits and vegetables are trivialized, even though they represent well-being and healthy eating. With today’s equipment and products, it’s no more difficult to make soup than it is to heat up a frozen pizza. Maybe I’m a modern-day Don Quixote, but I preach the cause of things that are difficult to accomplish.” The artist appreciates the initiative of the Romo Food Festival and the support of various national federations: “For fruits and vegetables... bingo!”

For Junault — who works as an event planner and teaches classes — sculpting fulfills a “need to decorate.” A trip to Thailand, which is a mecca for sculptors, was all it took: “In Thailand, there is a reverence for fruits and vegetables, a higher meaning, an entire symbolism that is a part of many cultures. It was a revelation that led me into teaching.” Gérard Rigault won the attendees' prize, “La Palombière.”
I don't know what “La Palombière” is — is it the name of the prize he won? A palombe is a woodpigeon or ringdove. Or could it be the sculpture that Mr. Rigault created? I guess the writer (Brigitte Vaugeois) felt she needed to mention the runner-up, even if the mention is a complete non sequitur.

28 October 2008

Romorantin's Journées gastronomiques

Our local newspaper is called La Nouvelle République. It's published in Tours, and it has different editions for different départements in our region.

The article below is about a food festival last weekend over in Romorantin, which everybody here calls "Romo" and which is about 20 miles northeast of Saint-Aignan. Romo is the largest town (pop. 20,000) in the region called La Sologne, which is a flat, sandy area of pine forests and small lakes. La Sologne is known for game animals and hunting, along with asparagus, strawberries, and some of the most famous châteaux of the Loire Valley — Chambord, Cheverny, and others.
Loir-et-Cher — Local happenings
A Blend of Sologne and Portuguese Flavors in Romo
After the success of the 2007 event featuring the food of Martinique, just as many attend the Portuguese festival.

High attendance marked Romorantin’s 31st Food Festival. The local Portuguese community got involved to organize the celebration, and were successful.

Re-energized by the success of the Martinique celebration last year, the Food Festival was faced with the challenge of matching 2007's attendance figures. The organizers placed their bets on Portugal, calling on local associations and the Portuguese community, a long-time presence in the Sologne and the Cher Valley.
Portuguese dance troupes entertain crowds at Romo's food fest.
Thanks to La Nouvelle République for the photo.
“People really turned out. We are very pleased,” said Antonio Azevedo of the “Friends of Portugal” association yesterday.

“We hadn’t attended in a long time. This year was better than ever: lively, festive, fun,” said Claude and Alain Benoît from Palluau-sur-Indre. They were munching on chorizo and shrimp croquettes, the ubiquitous salt cod, and “natas” for dessert.

“We are proud for Portugal to be so honored,” said Marie and Isabelle de Jesus.

They are sisters, Romorantin natives of Portuguese background. “The community turned out in mass. There was a festive atmosphere in the streets thanks to dance troupes. The bigtop where Portuguese products were on sale was not as much fun as last year’s, though. But that’s how Portuguese people are. We aren’t like people from the islands.”

“The cultures are different. You can’t compare them,” said Laetitia and Catherine, attending with 2-year-old Mathys and 6-year-old Manon. “At any rate, this gave us a chance to experience something different — to feel like we were somewhere other than in the Sologne for a little while,” said Amandine Berry and Julien Duwicquet, forks in hand.

Construction hands
For the town of Romorantin, this 31st Food Festival was an occasion for reflecting on recent history, especially immigration trends from the 1950s to the 1970s, which brought in Portuguese farm, construction, and factory workers. The festival program featured a retrospective on the years when local and immigrant populations began to mix. There were concerts, lectures, slideshows, and story-telling sessions.

Next year, the Romorantin Food Festival will focus on Spain. It will be organized with the help of Romo’s new Spanish sister city, Aranda-de-Duero.
I found this web site for a Portuguese bakery in Los Angeles that describes the Protuguese "natas" pastry. It seems to be a little custard tart.

I enjoyed this sidebar, printed on the same page:
Bourges resident wins “best cook” prize
Victor Ostronzec carried the day in Romorantin.

Bourges resident Victor Ostronzec, 25, won the Robert-Guérin competition, which honors the best cook at the Romo Food Festival.
Thanks to La Nouvelle République for the photo.

Ostonzec works at the Saint-Ambroix abbey in Bourges. This was his first competition. “It’s a lot of work,” he said. “Intensive training over a month or more, with this help of the whole abbey team. My chef was always there to coach me.” Ostronzec won the competition with his saddle of wild hare. “I stuffed it with foie gras and garnished it with potatoes (or apples), carrots, and wild mushrooms. I served it with a small cabbage stuffed with truffles and a sauce made with the blood of the hare. Everything was carefully timed. An hour and a half to prepare a dish like this is really tight!”
I'm not sure whether the foie gras stuffing included potatoes or apples. The French just says « pommes » without specifying. I translated it as potatoes. The wild mushrooms the cook mentions are called trompettes-de-la-mort — "trumpets of death"— in French. I've never tried them. Would you? Maybe you know them by their English name, which is apparently "horn of plenty."

It seems like Walt and I went to the wrong festival. Romo's would have been more fun than Saint-Aignan's.

27 October 2008

Getting ready

Yesterday was the last nice day we're going to have for a while, according to weather forecasters. It was sunny and bright, and I got out and raked up some leaves in the afternoon. Earlier we spent most of the day in the kitchen, cooking lunch and getting some food items like turkey legs processed for freezing — in other words, we cut them up and packaged them in meal-size servings.

A fog bank hugged the river valley yesterday morning.

It was brighter than usual when I took the dog out for a walk yesterday morning. That's because of our time change. I actually went out an hour later than I'd been going recently because we fell back an hour. Our time difference with the U.S. East Coast is only five hours right now, not six, and eight with California instead of nine.

Spiders have been busy.

I noticed spider webs absolutely everywhere out in the vineyard yesterday morning. There was morning dew and the sun was sparkling off dewdrops, making the webs very visible. I assume the spiders are trying to catch as many bugs as possible right now, fattening themselves up for the winter. Laying in supplies, maybe.

Sunday sunset

This Monday morning a hard steady rain is falling. It's not very cold, but I needed to turn on the heat to take the chill off the house. By mid-week, temperatures are supposed to be down to or even below freezing. There could even be snow, especially in the mountains south and east of us, but maybe even as far west as Saint-Aignan.

October's last gasp

The calendar doesn't indicate it, but according to nature November has arrived. The mayor and her husband got back yesterday afternoon from their trip to California and the Far West, where the weather has been gorgeous. I bet they are not happy campers this morning.

26 October 2008

Too early

That could be a title referring to the fact that we have now gone back on heure d'hiver — standard or winter time, they call it — here in France. I keep telling myself that it won't be eight o'clock until nine o'clock this morning. It's very confusing. Callie is going to wonder why her walk is so late.

But "too early" actually has to do with the street fair in Saint-Aignan yesterday. That's when we got there. I was up very early and we were out the door by about 9:30, after Walt took the dog out. When we got to Saint-Aignan we found a place to park and took a walk to survey the scene.

A view of Saint-Aignan's old towers from near the town cemetery

In fact, there weren't many people out yet and I think some of the vendors hadn't yet set up their stalls for the day. The morning weather was chilly but the sun was already peeking through thin clouds. The St-Simon festival is an all-day affair and I think people were waiting until later than we had to join the fun.

A lot of the vendors were selling clothes and shoes. I'm sure some of them had good-quality, fashionable pumps, jackets, shirts, and dresses on offer. But the overall impression I get when I see the merchandise for sale at these kinds of markets is that it looks very old-fashioned. And it can be pricey at these special events — one vendor was selling bedroom slippers for €30 a pair. Similar slippers go for €5 a pair at SuperU or Intermarché.

Carnival rides were being set up on the main town square.
That's the château de Saint-Aignan looming in the background.

Pricey is the word for a lot of the food on sale too. One vendor had cheeses like big wheels of Gruyère or Cantal, but he was asking €30 a kilogram for it. I bought AOC Comté, a similar if not better cheese, at Intermarché on Friday for €8.50/kg.

Sometimes you think these vendors, who most likely travel a circuit from town to town over the course of the year to sell what they sell, are playing on older people's confusion about prices in euros as opposed to the old prices in French francs. In other words, something that would have cost, say, 7 francs a few years ago is now on sale for 7 euros, like the little butter cakes from Brittany at one stall. The problem is that the euro is worth 6.5 francs, so that's quite a markup. Seven francs is just a little more than one euro.

Later in the day, the weather was nice enough for hot-air
balloons to be drifting over the autumn countryside.

There were also stands selling, or getting ready to start selling, hot food to eat. There were big long rolls of boudin noir (blood sausage) sitting in stainless steel pans over a warming fire (€11/kg). At another stand there was a big pan of andouillettes (chitterling sausages) steaming away in a sea of white beans with a light tomato sauce. It was pork'n'beans on steroids. It was too early in the morning for those strong odors.

Nobody was selling bernache yet. The stands were set up, the signs were posted (€1 a glass), and the tables were set out. There were even a few bottles of bernache on the tables. Well, not bottles as you might think of them — they were plastic Evian and Vittle mineral-water bottles that had been filled with the yellowish, cloudy bernache, which is the year's first wine and is still fermenting when you drink it. They say it can wreak havoc with your digestive system, but people think it's fun to drink some at this time of year.

It's the time of year when people burn leaves and other yard waste.
There was a big fire off on the horizon, across the river from us.

You can read more about bernache and a lot of other interesting topics on Susan and Simon's blog, Days on the Claise.

It was only 10:15 or so, so too early for bernache, blood sausage, or andouillettes and beans — at least for us. We did a fairly brisk walk-through, decided it wasn't really for us, and headed for the food market. We needed mushrooms, and the woman who grows them and sells them in Saint-Aignan on Saturday mornings was there. We bought 500 grams of white button mushrooms for today's blanquette de veau. Then we walked back to the car and drove home.

25 October 2008

Pink October sunrise

Yesterday morning I very nearly decided not to take my camera with me on the morning walk with Callie. It was cold and fairly dark outside at 8:00 a.m. I was going to put on a hat and gloves for the first time this season. Taking pictures with gloves on is not really practical.

Looking toward the village at 8:15 a.m.
24 October 2008

I even rifled my closet in search of my long johns and found them. I put them on under my jeans. The temperature outside was 1.8ºC, which is something like 35ºF. Brrrr. And as I said, it was dark when the dog and I left the house. At the last second, I stuck my camera and my extra battery in my pocket.

Callie seemed to be enoying the show too.
If you can't see her, click the picture to enlarge it.

As we started to walk out into the vineyard, I noticed that the light was very unusual. I turned around and looked behind me, to the east. A bank of clouds was coming in from the northwest. Rain was predicted. But for the moment the wispy clouds were reflecting light from the sun, which hadn't yet come up over the horizon.

Follow the yellow-brick road (?).

The pink light combined with the yellow of the fading grape vine leaves to make a strange orange color at ground level. As the minutes passed, the clouds became less pink and started appearing much whiter.

That's our tree and house in the middle of the picture.

In the photo below, looking west instead of east toward the sunrise, you can see how the landscape already looks really wintry.

Frost on the grass

We were almost back home when I took this last photo. The colors had completely changed.

Changing light

Today is a special market day in Saint-Aignan. It's the weekend of the annual Fête de la Saint-Simon, with a street fair and flea market along with the weekly food market. I think the weather is supposed to cooperate, and we plan to go into town this morning to take some pictures.

24 October 2008

Long shadows on sunny days

At this time of year, the sun is low in the sky. But we are seeing it often, and it's pleasant in the afternoon. Shadows are long and distinct.

Sun on the little tower in the dining room

That's true of shadows even inside the house. Again, that's nice except that it makes the windows look so dusty and streaky. Right now, morning rays of sun through the kitchen window shine all the way into the dining room and light up not only the walls but our Eiffel Tower model.

One year when we went to Paris on vacation, Walt bought a little Eiffel Tower replica in a souvenir shop. We still lived in California. Friends there saw the replica and started giving W. little Eiffel Towers of all kinds as presents on his birthday and at Christmas.

Top of the tower as a shadow

Later, he did a photo series on Eiffel Towers on his blog that you might have seen. The one in these pictures is by far the largest. The little wire figure on top of it was a gift (a stocking-stuffer) from a friend's daughter the same year, coincidentally, as the wire large tower. They've been inseparable ever since.

Outdoors, sunny weather means the hedge work continues. Yesterday W. finished trimming another section along the street. It's the section of hedge that we see from our kitchen window, along with the neighbors' house across the road. The neighbors happened to be here yesterday afternoon.

Hedge trimming, 23 October 2008

Madame M. walked over to admire Walt's work. She approved and said it looked impeccable, waving a hand in the direction of the long piece of neatly clipped hedge that runs along the road out back.

Madame M. stepped across the street to admire the hedge.

I stepped out on the terrace the shout a bonjour in Mme M.'s direction and tell her I was inside watching a movie on TV while W. worked. I wanted her to know that, because several times over the summer she happened to walk over while I was working in the yard or garden and Walt was sitting and resting. She had no way of knowing that he had just finished some big job himself and was rewarding himself with a sit-down and a cold drink.

« On fait le lézard ?» was what she said to him once, accusing him of looking like a lizard basking in the sun while his partner — yours truly — worked up a sweat tilling or weeding or digging. It happened two or three times, as I said. I didn't want her to think W. wasn't pulling his weight around here, so yesterday I made sure she understood that I was inside watching TV while W. worked.

Our neat hedge along the rue de la Renaudière,
just outside Saint-Aignan

When the movie ended, I went out and cut up some more birch branches for about two hours, adding a lot more wood to the pile of kindling we can burn this winter or next. And then I took Callie for a walk.

23 October 2008

Gratin d'endives au jambon (2)

For part 1 of the endives recipe, click here.

Cooked endives and sliced ham

While the endives are cooking in butter and lemon juice with garlic is the time to make the sauce béchamel you are going to cook them in. Bechamel is a sauce blanche, or white sauce, that is made with milk rather than water. What you do is melt a good-size chunk of butter (2 or 3 tablespoons) and when it is hot stir in the same amount of flour.

Endive rollups and cheese sauce

Melt some butter

Cook the butter-flour mixture until you have a nice loose paste bubbling the bottom of the pot.Then start adding milk. Use whole milk, or even half-and-half. What I use here in France is skim milk plus about two tablespoons of crème fraîche for each cup of milk.

Anyway, add the liquid slowly, stirring it in completely each time. Keeping the mixture very thick in the beginning stages breaks down any lumps that might try to form. As you go, you can add liquid faster and the sauce will stay smooth.

A butter and flour roux

Don't forget to add the cooking liquid from the endives to the sauce (there should be about ½ cup of it). You can also mash the cooked garlic cloves into a paste and add that too, for flavor. Salt and pepper the sauce and let it cook for a few minutes. Then add a handful of grated cheese. Save some cheese to sprinkle on top for the final cooking in a hot oven.

Add cold milk slowly

I normally use Comté, Gruyère, or Emmental, which are Alpine or Swiss cheeses you get here in France. A good thing to put in almost any dish that includes melted cheese or cheese sauce is a pinch or a grate of nutmeg. Just a pinch gives the cheese are really good flavor. A sauce béchamel with grated cheese melted in it is called a sauce mornay, by the way.

Sauce mornay

For the recipe in the pictures with this post, I used Cantal cheese, a cheddar-like cheese from the Auvergne area a few hours south of Saint-Aignan. I buy Cantal at Ed because I like it and the price is right. It's an A.O.C. cheese that's made in dairies, not by farmers. The Ed supermarket in Saint-Aignan always has it.

Yes, Ed, which stands for Epicerie discount, is what they call a hard-discount grocery chain in Europe. For staple grocery items, it is good. I also got the ham there, and the endives. And the milk, cream, and butter. Probably the flour. So this turns out to be an Ed special dish.

Mashed cooked garlic

Ed's prices aren't always lower than SuperU's or Intermarché's, but they often are and there is no noticeable difference in the quality of the products. The Ed store in Saint-Aignan is clean and tidy and well lighted. Once we went to an Ed in a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings in Blois (in the Z.U.P., or Zone d'Urbanisation Prioritaire) and were surprised to see how grimy and "disheveled" the interior of the store seemed. The Ed store in Saint-Aignan must have good management and good employees.

Arrange the endive rollups in a baking pan
with cheese sauce on the bottom.

Back to the recipe. Now that you have the endives cooked and rolled in ham slices, and the sauce made, you're nearly there. All you have to do is put a layer of sauce in the bottom of a baking dish that is large enough to contain all the ham rolls in a single layer and then arrange the rolled-up ham on top of the sauce.

Grated Cantal cheese to strew over the top

Pour the rest of the sauce over the ham-endive rollups. You should have enough to cover everything nicely. If you don't have that much sauce, don't worry — you are going to sprinkle grated cheese over the whole thing anyway. Also, the sauce doesn't need to be very thick, so you can add more milk to thin it down if you need to. Then sprinkle cheese over the top (the same cheese or something like grated Parmesan, or a mixture).

Grated Cantal and grated Parmesan make a good combination

Put the dish in a hot oven to melt and brown the cheese on top. Everything is cooked and hot so it won't take long. If you prepare it ahead and let it cool before the final cooking in the oven, don't put the oven on quite so hot so that everything will have time to heat through before the top gets too brown.
Voilà !

Gratin d'endives au jambon fresh out of the oven

Let the gratin cool a little before you try to eat it. Molten cheese sauce can really burn your mouth.

22 October 2008

Gratin d'endives au jambon (1)

You know, it's really a little too early to be making food like Belgian endives and ham au gratin. This is classic wintertime food, the kind of food you eat when it's cold, gray, and raining outside.

But I have to say that's what our weather was like yesterday, and still is this morning. I'm not physically or spiritually ready for winter yet, and I'm protesting by feeling demoralized and resentful that summer is over already. At least I finished cutting up all the long branches I trimmed off the hazelnut trees. We have ample firewood.

Belgian endives cooked with butter, lemon juice, and garlic

And I'm glad I went ahead and cooked Belgian endives day before yesterday and made a French (or is it Belgian) classic for lunch. In French, it's called Gratin d'endives au jambon. The translation is Endives and Ham au Gratin.

I just searched my blog and I can't believe I've never posted this recipe before. I make it often. Yesterday I looked through some of my favorite cookbooks to see if there were recipes for the dish in them. I found only one, in Monique Maine's Cuisine pour toute l'année. And another one in brief, summary form in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Most of the other books, including the Larousse Gastronomique, don't seem to know about Belgian endives cooked with ham in a cheese sauce.

Belgian endives (just called endives, with no adjective in French) are a staple here. Especially in fall, winter, and early spring, you always find them in the markets and supermarkets. I bought a package at the Ed hard-discount market the other day. I hadn't planned to buy fresh vegetables that day, but there were the endives sitting there at 99 cents a kilogram —about 60 US cents a pound. Who could resist?

(To do that price conversion, I just looked at an on-line currency conversion utility. The euro is now worth only $1.29! Can you believe it? It was $1.58 the last time I changed money and had it wired to my bank here in France. So I've now gained more than 25 cents on the dollar. That's cause for celebration.)

So how do you cook Belgian endives? A lot of the books say you should cook them in a big pot of boiling water for 20 to 30 minutes. I've never tried that, and commenter Ladybird-Martine from Belgium seems to think that's a pretty awful way to proceed. Whew! I'm glad I didn't make that mistake.

The way I've always cooked the little white heads of what is known as endive in France and as witloof ("white-leaf", I assume) or chicon in Belgium is to braise them in butter with lemon juice and garlic. I don't know who showed me how, or where I got the recipe and the method otherwise. Maybe it was from Madame Maine's above-named book, which I've used in the kitchen since the 1970s.

Wrap each braised endive in a slice of boiled ham.

You take each endive and cut a sliver off the stem end to remove the part that has usually turned a little brown. And then you rinse the endives quickly under running water. You are not supposed to let them soak in water because that is said to make them taste bitter.

Some people "core" the endives by cutting a little cone out of the bottom of the stem, but I don't bother. Coring them supposedly makes them cook faster and taste less bitter. I don't mind the bitterness, and I cook them for an hour anyway.

Then you melt some butter in a pan big enough to hold all the endives in a single layer. Let them sizzle in the butter for a while. It's good to get them just a little brown on two or three sides. You can add some salt and pepper. Oh, and don't forget to put a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves in the pan with them.

When the endives have a golden brown color on two or three sides, squeeze the juice of a lemon over them and cover the pan. Turn the heat to low. Let the endives braise in the butter and lemon juice for as long as an hour, until they are completely tender when you pierce them with a knife or skewer.

If you need a little more liquid in the pan, pour in a couple of tablespoons of dry white wine. You won't need much. The idea is to use cooking liquids like lemon juice and wine that add a little sweetness to what is basically a bitter green.

When the endives are done take them out of the pan and let them cool and drain in a bowl or on a baking sheet for a few minutes. When they are cool enough to work with, you are ready to wrap each one in a slice of jambon de Paris, which I guess in America would be called Danish or sandwich or boiled ham.

And don't throw away that cooking liquid! You'll need it for the sauce.

More tomorrow... (To read part 2, click here.)

21 October 2008

Day off

I'm giving myself a day off. We've been busy cleaning out the garage this morning. It's raining outside.

Belgian endives braised in butter, white wine, lemon juice, and garlic

My plan for my next post is the recipe for Endives and Ham au Gratin. Maybe tomorrow.