31 December 2009

Adieu 2009

Let's say goodbye to the year 2009 and wish for a better 2010. I hear a lot of people saying that 2009 was a stinker of a year, and that the whole decade that is ending was no better.

I agree about the decade, actually, but for us here in Saint-Aignan, 2009 was a great year weather-wise. We had a long, dry, warm summer — maybe to best one since we moved here nearly seven years ago. I can't overstate the importance of that. All the summertime warmth and sunshine really can recharge your batteries and power you through the short, gray, rainy days of a northern French winter.

Looking out the kitchen window, you'd think
it was early spring, not December 31.

That said, look at the pictures in this post to see what has happened to our winter weather. It basically went north. A couple of weeks ago we thought we might have a white Christmas. Instead, warm winds off the ocean to the southwest brought us mild temperatures and a lot more rain, and the end-of-year holidays turned green.

We've even had sun, as you can see. These are pictures out our windows that I took yesterday afternoon. Everything is green green green.

Looking out over the yard and the vineyard on December 30

Last night and the night before, we have had... guess what... thunder and lightning. In December, nearly January now, we are having April weather. I'm not quite saying shirt-sleeve temperatures, but it certainly isn't wintery.

Nobody understands what is going on. Does the weird weather bode ill or well for the future? At my age, it seems to me that I've heard about "weird" and unusual weather all my life. It's a constant theme. So I'm not sure what to think.

I feel like going out and working in the vegetable garden.
Well, not really.

Tomorrow, hello 2010. That seems like the only certainty at this point. Along with the busy day I'll have today, at the market and in the kitchen, getting a meal ready for company tomorrow.

30 December 2009

Vegetable terrine

Back in 1987, Walt and I were living downtown in San Francisco, just on the edge of Japantown. He was preparing to have a party for some friends and he wanted to make a vegetable terrine using spinach, cauliflower, and carrots. The problem was that we didn't have a blender or food processor with which to make the necessary vegetable purees.

So on the spur of the moment, we went down to Macy's on Union Square and we bought a food processor, the first one I'd ever owned. It was (and still is) a Braun model. Twenty-two years later and far from California, we are today using the same food processor, and we use it several times a week. It was a good investment.

The recipe for the vegetable terrine was a keeper too. In French it's called « Terrine de légumes aux trois couleurs », and we got it out of a book called Terrines, pâtés : 80 recettes simples et raffinées (1985), part of a series called « Vieilles recettes de nos villages » — "old recipes from our French villages."

Here are links to two blog topics that Walt published a few years ago, with nice pictures, about the vegetable terrine: topic 1 and topic 2.

And here's what the recipe says to do to make the terrine:

Vegetable Terrine

1 lb. (500 g) fresh spinach
1 lb. (500 g) fresh cauliflower
1 lb. (500 g) fresh carrots
6 eggs
½ oz. salt
white pepper to taste
nutmeg to taste
1 cup (300 ml) unsweetened cream, whipped

Wash and peel the vegetables as needed and cut the carrots into rounds.

Cook the vegetables separately in boiling water with a little salt. Drain them and squeeze out the excess water. Puree each vegetable separately in a food mill, grinder, or food processor. Let cool.

Into each puree, mix two beaten eggs and one-third of the whipped cream. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to each mixture, to taste.

Butter a loaf pan and put the vegetable purees in by layer, starting with the carrots, then the cauliflower, and finally the pureed spinach.

Cook the terrine in a water bath in a 300ºF/150ºC oven for about an hour.

Unmold the vegetable terrine and serve it with a cream sauce in a gravy boat.
In the notes, the author says:
The proportions and the techniques in this recipe for the vegetable terrine can be used for other vegetable terrines, with broccoli, celery root, chicory, lettuce, and so on.

Cooked in individual molds, these vegetable purees are good served with grilled or roasted meats, including beef, poultry, and fish. In this case they are called "Vegetable Loaves."
In the picture, the book shows the vegetable terrine being served with what looks like steak in a meat gravy, so cream sauce isn't the only option. The vegetable terrine would also be good with a light tomato sauce, for example.

And you could easily use frozen rather than fresh vegetables to make it. Walt used frozen spinach, and he ran the cooked vegetables through the food (meat) grinder instead of whizzing them around in the food processor because he wanted a slightly coarser texture. A manual food mill would work well too.

29 December 2009

How to make an omelet

From Les Recettes d’une grand’mère et ses conseils (1978; Livre de Poche 1988) — A Grandmother's Recipes and Counsel —by Renée de Grossouvre:

The Omelet

“We all believe we know how to make an omelet, of course, but many people have never eaten a truly good one.”

“Making a good omelet requires that several conditions be met: you must use a pan that is wide enough to allow the eggs to spread out, and you must have perfectly fresh eggs — preferably brown ones. Finally, you need butter of the finest quality, of which you put in enough so that when you pour in the eggs, they swim in it. These indispensable details are the basis of a good omelet.”


“I make an omelet with 8 eggs for six people and I make sure that the pan I use is absolutely clean. For this number of eggs, I pour 2 oz. (65 g) of milk or water into a bowl and I mix in a big pinch (9 g) of salt and a small pinch of white pepper. Then I break the eggs into the bowl and I beat the mixture with a large fork for one and one-half minutes.”
Beaten eggs with grated cheese in them
“Into the pan, for 8 eggs, I put 3 oz. (100 g) of excellent butter and, on medium heat, I cook it until it browns just slightly. In addition, I add to the beaten eggs a few little bits of butter, which will melt as the omelet cooks and make it more tender. I pour the eggs into the hot butter, where they spread out and sizzle a little. With the fork, I carefully bring the edges of the omelet towards the center, which I also lift to make sure it isn’t sticking to the pan, moving it towards the edges. This way, I manage to spread the whole omelet out to an even thickness.”
Mushrooms "stewed" in butter and white wine
“As soon as the liquid egg at the surface starts to thicken, I shake the handle of the pan to make sure that the omelet slides around and isn’t stuck, while the egg on top is not completely set. At that point I slide it out of the pan onto a lukewarm serving platter. I fold it over as it slide out and serve it immediately. An omelet can never be kept waiting, not even for a second or two. It’s the guests who have to wait. Also, one must not cook it over full heat or it might stick to the pan, which would render it inedible.”
Mushrooms on one edge of a cheese omelet, ready
to slide out of the pan and be folded onto a platter
“This is the formula for a plain omelet to which one can add various ingredients, which will bring great variety to this simple, but very delicate and always delicious dish. You can serve it with a variety of sauces and include with the eggs leftover meats, such as stewed veal, which will be completely transformed.”
Yesterday I made my omelet with just 4 eggs, adjusting the amount of water (not milk), salt, and butter proportionately, and with Emmental cheese and button mushrooms. Mix the cheese in with the beaten eggs and use the mushrooms, cooked separately in butter and a little white wine, as a filling — fold the omelet over them in the pan or as you slide it out.

I'm not sure that the omelet was supposed to be so brown, but that's the way it came out. And it tasted great, with French-fried potatoes and a green salad.

28 December 2009

Looking back and ahead, at the same time

I was just reading Michael Wright’s essay about how he is glad he had an awakening one day in London and as a result moved his life to France six or seven years ago. He says:
“Eastern wisdom has it that human beings, left to our own devices, wake up once every seven years. For a few precious moments, like the flowering of some obscure cactus ... we have a chance to see our life clearly for what it is. We may admit to ourselves that the act we put on, about having all the answers, is just that: an act.”
And then we generally fall asleep again, Michael Wright says, for seven more years. Recently in a blog post I mentioned something about having the seven-year itch. I think that’s the same phenomenon.

So I sat here this morning, at my keyboard, wondering what in the world I would blog about, seven years after having bought a house in France and moved my life — lock, stock, and barrel — to the podunk town of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. A new year and a new decade are dawning.

Taking Michael Wright's essay seriously, I started thinking back on how my life has unfolded. Have you ever tried to divide your own adult life into seven-year segments? I just did it and it was very easy to do. Every seven years, there seems to be a natural transition point — at least in retrospect.

I left home to go to college. Over the next seven years, I came to France for the first time (Aix-en-Provence), and I graduated with a degree in French. I moved to Illinois for graduate school, started teaching, and then spent a year in Normandy (Rouen) as a teaching assistant. I got my masters degree in French literature exactly 7 years after left my home town to go off to college.

I moved back to France, this time to Paris for two years. It was my first long stay in Paris. I met a group of "local" people there, and they became the pivot point of my life until the early '8os. Several of them visited me in Illinois. I passed the written and oral exams for my Ph.D., and I went off to spend some time in Paris to “do research.” The seven-year cycle was ticking along.

I met Walt, in Paris. I decided I was not really interested in a teaching career or finishing my Ph.D. Walt and I both moved to Washington D.C. and stayed four years. Then we decided Washington was not the place for us and we moved to San Francisco. We got settled there. He was a grad student and I started work in the computer software business. Work, Washington, and San Francisco were the focus of those years, and France was becoming a memory.

I got a chance to come to France again, after a hiatus of 6 years. I jumped at it, of course. It was a professional gig in Grenoble, but Walt and I scraped together enough money for him to fly over and spend Thanksgiving weekend with me in Paris. A period of frequent trips to Paris and other parts of France began. The big 1989 earthquake showed us a side of life in California we could have done without. We took a driving trip around France that fall and passed through Saint-Aignan for the first time. Walt finished his studies and got a job in San Jose, so we moved to Silicon Valley, where we were both working.

We realized we didn’t really like living in the suburbia called Silicon Valley, so we bought a house in San Francisco and moved. At work I took over as the manager of my group, but I got laid off three years later when the parent company closed us down. I enjoyed a year off work — no commuting! — and traveled twice to France. Then, dispirited and discouraged, I had a couple of other jobs and commuted to Silicon Valley almost daily, in the traffic jams.

I chucked it all in. I quit my job and started looking on the Internet for a house to buy in France. Partly it was because I had time on my hands, and we didn’t know that we would actually move even if we did by a house here. In December 2002, we bought the house we live in now. Within 3 months our house in San Francisco was sold, and three months after that we were living in Saint-Aignan.

This has already been a pivotal year. We have pretty much finished fixing up this (not very) old house and we've made it comfortable. We have gotten into a routine with the gardening, we are securely enrolled in the French health care system (I hope), and we received our 10-year residency cards in September.

I’ve left out many important events that don’t fit neatly into my seven-year segments, of course. Relationships, deaths, long-lasting friendships, dogs, starting the blog ... well, you can't include absolutely everything.

So what comes next?

27 December 2009

Recommended reading

The weather in Saint-Aignan has become "normal" again. The temperature hovers around freezing early in the morning. Yesterday we had quite a bit of frost, and in shady spots it lasted all day. Afternoon temperatures range from the low 40s to the low 50s.

The nice thing is that the sun was out all day yesterday. So even though it was chilly, the day had a pleasant feel to it. Callie and I took an extra long walk in the afternoon. She got really muddy, but that's OK. She has her own shower downstairs in the utility room, so it's easy to wash her off.

The pond is covered with a thin layer of ice.

Have you ever heard of or read Michael Wright? He's an Englishman who lives a couple of hours south of Saint-Aignan and writes about his life there for the British newspaper The Telegraph. Some of his recent columns are also on the Internet here.

Yesterday's sunset was spectacular.

I've never met or even corresponded with Michael Wright, but for several years I've been reading his reports on life in the place he calls Jolibois ("pretty woods"). He bought an old farmhouse, he says, six or seven years ago and calls it La Folie ("madness" or "the folly"). He keeps animals including dogs, cats, goats, and chickens. He flies an old plane. He plays tennis. He writes about a cast of French characters. And he recently married and has two small children.

The sky and vineyard at dog-walking time

Lately he has been reflecting on all that he has done over the past seven years. About the struggle to become fluent in French, and how important that is. About why he came to live in France in the first place, and whether he's happy he did. It's all very interesting to me, and some of his reports are hilarious. I guess we all get reflective when a year — and a decade — ends and a new one is ready to start.

Pink light on and over the pond

The British viewpoint on matters French is different from the American viewpoint in many ways, I think. The historical ties that bind France and England, their geographical proximity, old cultural attitudes and rivalries, and just the sheer number of Brits who have bought houses in France — well, all that puts the British expatriate in a different category compared to Americans like Walt and me.

A close view of the sunset out the bedroom window

I'm not sure how far back Michael's archives go on the site I linked to above. You might have to search around a little bit to find more essays and stories of his. He has a website/blog here, and there's an interview with him on this site. Michael has also published a book called C'est La Folie. If you are interested in people who have chucked it all in and picked up and moved their lives to rural France, he is a good read.

26 December 2009

How the “boiled” goose turned out

I've put my foot in it now. Mettre les pieds dans le plat, as they say in French — "to put your feet in the dish." Stepping into it. That means saying more than one should, and not very diplomatically, about a sensitive question, une question qui fâche, and maybe upsetting some people. In this case, I don't think anybody is really upset, but I also don't think our French friend was making anything up when she talked about traditional English cooking being based on boiled meats and vegetables.

Here is the "boiled" goose, before browning.

Voici a classic recipe from a French cookbook: Leg of Lamb or mutton à l'anglaise. It says: "Boil some carrots, turnips, onions, and herbs for two hours. Drop the leg roast into the boiling liquid and let it cook for 15 minutes per pound. Drain and serve surrounded by the vegetables. Make a caper sauce and serve it alongside in a gravy boat. The boiled meat is also good with mashed potatoes or pureed white beans."

For the stuffing, a jar of marrons — cooked chestnuts

And that's just one book — Ginette Mathiot's Je sais cuisiner (1970), of which I understand a new edition is currently being prepared for publication. The Larousse Gastronomique (1967 edition) gives this definition of the method of cooking called «à l'anglaise » — "Name given to various recipes most often calling for boiling foods in water (see 'Leg of Mutton in the English Style') or chicken broth (see 'Pullet in the English Style')."

Another classic in French cooking is Pommes de terre à l'anglaise — boiled potatoes served hot with melted butter.

The poached goose, some chestnuts and some sprouts

So the French woman in my story didn't make this up. It's the standard French opinion of the English way of cooking. Of course, the recipes don't call for boiling the meat until it is so cooked that it is falling off the bone (though that might be good too). If you boil a leg of lamb for just 20 minutes per pound, it will be rare in the middle. I've never tried it, but now I'm very tempted.

And now I (and others) are doing the same kind of thing with, especially, poultry. Except that once the bird has been boiled — or delicately poached, if you're careful and keep the heat low — you then put it in a hot oven for a while to dry it out and let the skin turn a golden brown. The roasting stage adds flavor and is much less messy than roasting a raw bird.

Here's the poached goose after browning in a hot oven.

Somebody at the dinner party the other night pointed out that, in fact, English people, like French people, didn't have ovens in their kitchens until relatively recently — say 100 years ago. Earlier than that, they cooked in big fireplaces (if they had one) and either roasted meats on spits — à la broche — or boiled their meats and vegetables in voluminous cast iron pots placed close the the hot fire, or suspended above it.

In France, people were able to roast meats in the local baker's oven after the day's bread had been baked — and for a fee, probably. In the country, many if not most villages had a four banal, a community oven, where people could take their roasts and pies and gratins for cooking. I don't know if England has a similar traditon of community ovens.

Another shot of the golden brown goose — notice
how there's almost no meat on the wing.

Back to the present: the boiled goose was good. I let it sit overnight in the poaching liquid. A layer of mostly congealed fat covered the surface in the morning, but there wasn't nearly as much of it as I thought there would be. I set the pot on a burner just long enough to warm it up and melt the fat, and then I used a ladle to scoop nearly all the fat and liquid out, putting it into another pot for further simmering.

I cut off and froze the leg & thigh sections for later.

At that point, the goose had cooled down enough that I could just reach in and pick it up with my impeccably clean bare hands and set it on a rack in a roasting pan. It sat and dried out well for an hour or so — that's part of the recipe. When it was time to put it in a 400ºF/200ºC oven for browning, I brushed it all over with some of the liquid goose fat. Some drippings had collected in the bottom of the roasting pan as the goose rested, and to them I added another cup or so of goose broth from the stock pot.

By the time the goose had spent 30 minutes in the hot oven, that liquid and the fat that the bird released had made a dark brown, very delicious sauce that I served with the goose and the stuffing I made. Separately, I also made a thickened gravy from the broth in the stock pot, using some goose fat to make a flour roux — no butter or cream in sight.

The stuffing, cooked separately, might more
appropriately be called "dressing."

What was the stuffing?
Prune & Chestnut Stuffing for Poultry

600 g sausage meat (ground poultry & pork)
350 g cooked chestnuts, coarsely chopped
350 g pitted prunes, cut in large pieces
2 onions, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
1 cup dried bread crumbs
salt, pepper, nutmeg, and allspice
2 beaten eggs
3 Tbsp. goose fat
¾ cup goose broth

Mix the meat and all the dry ingredients together with the eggs. Put the stuffing into a baking dish so that it's not more than two inches (5 cm) deep. Spoon on the goose fat and then pour the broth over all. Set the pan in a hot oven and let it cook for 30 minutes or until completely cooked and browned. It's basically a savory cake. Slice and serve with the goose and the roasting juices or the flour gravy.
You can't really stuff the goose, because it won't be in the browning oven long enough to cook the sausage meat all the way through. Make it in a baking dish. The goose fat and broth will give it the flavor it needs. I think you could use walnuts or pecans in the place of the chestnuts.

There is of course a lot of goose left over after dinner, since there were just two of us eating it. I cut off the leg & thigh sections after roasting and put them in the freezer for later use. Our dog Callie will get most of the meat and skin from the wings (there's not very much meat on goose wings) and bits off the carcass, chopped and mixed with rice cooked in goose or chicken broth. We will have the breast meat that's left for lunch today and maybe again tomorrow, with leftover carrots, stuffing, and Brussels sprouts.

There is no white meat on a goose.
Is this what we call having "goose flesh"?

I ended up with about three quarts of goose broth, after boiling it down for a couple of hours to reduce the volume and concentrate the flavor. And I ended up with about two cups of goose fat — that's all. I was kind of disappointed. I wanted more. Maybe our goose was too young to have been really fattened up. All those warnings about the prodigious amounts of fat left over after roasting a goose just didn't apply in our case.

Do you think it could have something to do with the poaching?

25 December 2009

Poaching the holiday goose

When I tell my English and Irish friends that I'm going to poach a goose in water, they look at me like I'm crazy. Then they launch into a big debate over whether you should put the goose breast-down or breast-up in the roasting pan to start it cooking in the oven.

Last night, Christmas Eve, we were invited to a small dinner party in Saint-Aignan. Around the table, we were two Americans, one Frenchwoman, one Englishman, one Irishwoman, and one Dutchman. While the Irishwoman and the Englishman were discussing how the goose should be roasted, breast up or breast down, the Frenchwoman said: "But boiling meat is the English way to do it. They always cook meat that way, don't they? It's a cooking method called
« à l'anglaise »." That started a different discussion, as you might imagine.

A 9½ lb. goose, or oie — a fine specimen, I'd say.

Poaching large pieces of poultry is something I've learned to do since I've lived in Saint-Aignan. I learned it from a French chef who has a show on the French channel known as Cuisine TV. I've poached turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, capons, and regular chickens. After you poach the bird, you take it out of the liquid, let it dry for a few minutes, then baste it with fat and put it in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until the skin turns a golden brown.

I put the aromatics in a spice ball to cook in the poaching liquid.

So this Christmas I'm cooking a goose for the first time ever, and I decided to use the poaching method. When we decided months ago that we would cook a goose for our holiday dinner, I hadn't really thought about poaching it. I was just going to roast it in the oven.

Then I read about roast goose in Julia Child's The Way to Cook book. She recommended steaming the goose for an hour, then braising it for 90 minutes at least, and finally browning it in the oven for 30 minutes or so.

Celery root and carrots to flavor the goose broth

Well, that made me think of the poaching option again, and poaching seemed simpler than steaming followed by braising. When we went to the Christmas Eve market in Saint-Aignan this morning to get the goose we had ordered, we didn't know how big it would be, and that mattered. It turned out to weigh 4.3 kg — that's 9½ lbs.

That wasn't the most important thing, though. What mattered most was whether the goose would fit in our biggest cook pot for the poaching. It was too big for a stainless steel pot with a heavy aluminum bottom, which was the one I wanted to poach it in.

But it did just barely fit in another pot, a big old crab boil pot that I hardly ever use any more. I think I bought it many years ago when we lived in Washington DC and blue crabs were readily available and not expensive. You know the kind of pot I mean — light-weight, with a black enamel coating speckled with white. The one I've got is 33 cm/13 inches in diameter, and it's pretty deep.

The goose surrounded by vegetables, poaching peacefully

I poached the goose for two hours on the lowest flame, so that it was just barely simmering. You don't want it to be boiled, in fact — just poached. Into the poaching liquid — salted water — I put three carrots, a couple of slices of celery root, two small onions, two shallots, three cloves of garlic, three big bay leaves, a dozen or more black peppercorns, and half a dozen allspice berries.

I would have used stalks of celery but I happened to have a big round celery root, and that has the same kind of flavor. I left the carrots and celery in the broth just long enough to cook them well, and we will eat them with the goose. Or I might put the celery in the stuffing.

I hope the goose will be succulent and flavorful,
as well as golden brown by the time we eat it.

After two hours of poaching, I turned off the gas and let the goose cool down in the liquid, on the theory that if it cooled in the aromatic liquid overnight it would absorb more flavor. I noticed a nice thick layer of goose fat floating on the surface of the liquid. That is fat that didn't spatter all over the inside of my oven. This morning, the fat has congealed on the surace of the poaching liquid.

Now all I have to do is get the goose out of the big pot of what has become goose broth and into the oven to brown for a few minutes. Oh, and make some stuffing, and trim and cook some Brussels sprouts. Lunch will be ready.

24 December 2009

Happy Holidays

Just a note today to say Happy Holidays to all — bonnes fêtes de fin d'année, as we say in Saint-Aignan.

We are off to the market to buy a fat goose. I might start cooking it this afternoon. That is, if I have a pot big enough to poach it in. More about that as it happens.

This year's tree at Les Bouleaux (that's the name of our house)

Don't eat too much, and be careful on the highways. We are supposed to get rain today, but it's going to snow just north of us, they say.

23 December 2009

French pepper steak — Steak au poivre

This is the recipe for Walt's birthday Steak au poivre, French pepper steak. I've been making it for about 30 years. I don't usually use a precise recipe, but I described how I make it, with pictures, in this 2006 blog post.

The steaks "marinating" in coarse black pepper and the
bottle of marc de Touraine — a local brandy —made by a
neighbor, which we used to make the pepper-cream sauce.

Here's a recipe for Steak au poivre in French that I got off the Internet. It describes what I do and has the advantage of giving precise amounts for the ingredients. Use it as a guide. This is my adaptation/translation, with American measurements:
French Steak au poivre

4 steaks, ¾" to 1" thick, 6 to 8 oz. each
2 Tbsp. coarsely ground pepper
2 fl. oz. cognac
3 fl. oz. dry white wine
6 fl. oz. reduced veal or chicken stock
4 fl. oz. heavy cream
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

Pour a tablespoon of vegetable oil onto a plate and add a pinch of salt. On another plate, put the coarsely ground pepper.

Dip each steak in the oil and then in the pepper so that the pepper sticks to the meat. Let the steaks rest for an hour or even two if you have time.

Set a heavy skillet over high heat and put in a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the butter is lightly browned, put the pepper-coated steaks in the pan and sear them for two to four minutes on each side so that they will be done the way you like them (rare, medium, etc.). Take the steaks out of the pan, put them on a plate, and cover them with foil to rest (in a warm oven or other warm place).

While the steaks are resting, pour the fat out of the skillet and put it back on high heat. Pour in the cognac and stir it around to deglaze the pan. Add the white wine and boil it until it is reduced by half. Add the cream and let that reduce by half as well, and then add the concentrated veal or chicken stock.

As soon as the sauce boils again, take the pan off the heat and stir in the Dijon mustard. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.

Add to the sauce any juices released by the steaks, stir well, and then pour the sauce over the steaks — or put them back in the pan, on low heat, to cook a little more, turning them to coat them completley in the sauce.
Serve these steaks with French-fried or sauteed potatoes, French bread, red wine, and a green salad dressed with vinaigrette. The sauce is delicous with French fries.

Sear the steaks in a heavy, very hot pan.

I've made this pepper steak recipe using cognac, armagnac, calvados, or other brandies at different times. Bourbon whiskey would also be good. You make the sauce with white wine alone, no brandy, but the flavor will be different.

The steak is good with either coarse black or white pepper (called mignonnette in French), and it's also good with coarsely chopped green peppercorns. Use as little or as much pepper as you see fit.

A sauce made with cream, pepper, wine, and brandy.

Julia Child makes her pepper sauce with a little sauteed shallot in it. That would be good too. In a recipe in one of her books, she puts in brandy but no white wine, and in another she puts in white wine but no brandy. Jacques Pépin makes a pepper steak sauce with butter instead of cream, but otherwise it's basically the same thing.

Strictly speaking, the veal or chicken stock is optional, as is the mustard, but both add good flavor. A dark, concentrated stock will give the sauce a darker color too. To me, the most important ingredients are the steaks, pepper, salt, white wine, and cream. The brandy or whiskey can also really enhance the flavor.

22 December 2009

Bordeaux wine and duck fat biscuits

We didn't have Bordeaux wine and duck fat biscuits at the same meal, but we could well have done.

Last summer when our late friend J-L, who passed away a couple of months ago, came over for a couscous lunch out in the back yard with his partner S. and other friends of ours, he and S. brought us a bottle of Bordeaux wine with the name Le Chevalier Marteau — The Knight "Marteau"— on the label.

Le Chevalier Marteau Bordeaux red wine, 2006

Marteau was J-L's last name, but as far as I know his family has no particular connection to the Bordeaux region. It was just a funny coincidence. There are a lot of people named Marteau — which means "hammer" — around the Saint-Aignan area.

In fact, Marteau is an old and venerated name in France. Charles Martel (that's the old French spelling), who ruled over the Francs in the 700s A.D., defeated the Arabs (a.k.a. Saracens, Moors) in a decisive battle not far south of the city of Tours in 732. He was named "Charles the Hammer" because of the way he crushed the enemy armies and sent them retreating south into Spain.

Walt's birthday cake: Glazed Pumpkin-Walnut Bread.
He made it himself.

Walt and I decided to open and enjoy the Chevalier Marteau wine yesterday with Walt's birthday dinner of steak au poivre. Another reason for drinking the wine now is that J-L's birthday was December 19, just two days before Walt's, and he would have turned 53 if he had still been among the living. The wine was good and made the meal all the more memorable.

Meanwhile, on Sunday I decided to take up my own challenge and make a batch of U.S. Southern-style biscuits using a quintessential French shortening: duck fat. I have quarts of it in the refrigerator from all the ducks I've cooked over the past few years. It keeps forever in sealed jars in there, and it is good for making sauteed potatoes and for flavoring vegetables.

U.S. Southern-style biscuits made with duck fat

It is also good as a substitute for butter and vegetable shortening in baking savory breads and cakes, I now know. The duck fat biscuits, using Tom's recipe as far as proportions of flour, leavening, salt, and liquid go, were excellent, as you can see from the picture above. Walt liked them. He said they were nice and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

Instead of half a cup of buttermilk, I used 60 ml of plain low-fat yogurt mixed with 60 ml of skim milk in these biscuits. The biscuits were good at lunch with some garden-grown mustard greens (also flavored with a little duck fat) and some boiled potatoes of the Charlotte variety that we get here in France. The potatoes are similar to Yukon Golds.

Tender inside

This is more fusion cooking for me, but for once it is American technique combined with French ingredients. Usually it's French techniques applied to cooking American foods. I just recently started making U.S. Southern-style biscuits after eating them all my life. I wonder what shortening they were made with when I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s? Crisco? Margarine? Lard? My mother could tell us.

21 December 2009

What a difference a day makes

It's a good 15ºF warmer this morning — it's about +2ºC rather than -7º) — than it was just a couple of days ago, and you can feel that the house is much warmer too. It rained most of yesterday afternoon and a lot of the snow was gone by nightfall. That's Loire Valley weather for you. It snows a little but it doesn't usually last long.

So what a difference a day makes, eh? And what a difference it makes for Walt today. It's his birthday, and it's a major one. It will be the 28th time that we've celebrated his birthday together, and I hope there will be at least 28 more.

Today is also the shortest day of the year. Ouf ! as they say — Phew! Finally the days will start getting longer again. We've made it most of the way through another season of dark and drear. Now it'll be Christmas, with cheese fondue on the 24th and then roast goose on the 25th, and then New Year's Eve with Champagne and oysters and Jan. 1st with a nice cassoulet — and the bonus of sharing it with friends in the afternoon.

The cabbage patch — collard greens and chard, really — seems
to have survived the snow and ice without much damage.

Our trip to the market over in Noyers yesterday morning was uneventful but beautiful. I'm sorry I didn't take my camera, but it was snowing too hard and just too windy and cold for me to want to get out of the car to take pictures. We didn't have any trouble driving down the steep hill into the river valley, and the bridges that span the two branches of the Cher River at Saint-Aignan had been salted and sanded, so they weren't too slippery.

The market itself was very small and nearly deserted. We were able to park right next to the three or four stalls that were open for business. Usually I have to park much farther away. Many of the vendors, including the guy who sells a wide variety of very good cheeses from his little market van, hadn't yet showed up when we were there between 9:30 and 10:00. They probably figured it just wasn't worth risking the drive.

The vendors who were present were the ones we wanted to buy from though. The market square was smoothly white with snow, and the poultry merchant and a big produce vendor were set up for business. There was also a vendor selling oysters, and one other vegetable stand was open. Instead of being in tenth or fifteenth place in a long line to buy chicken, I was second, and there were only two people behind me. Walt was over standing in line to buy some lettuce and mushrooms.

One of those behind me in line was a young woman we have met before at parties. Her husband is a gendarme and she works at the SuperU store in Saint-Aignan, so I see her fairly often. Another was a tiny man of about 80 who kept making jokes when he started talking to the woman and me. The main subject of conversation was of course the weather and whether it was going to get better or worse over the course of the afternoon.

« Ce que je peux vous dire, c'est qu'il va sûrement faire beau pour le 14 juillet, » the man told me, with a twinkle in his eye — "All I know is that we will surely have good weather for Bastille Day." He said he picked the 14th of July as the day the weather would be nice because that way he was pretty sure he wouldn't be wrong. (Ça reste à voir, je dirais — we'll see...)

When I ordered some ground poultry and pork to use as part of the stuffing for our Christmas goose, the same man had another joke for me. The ground meat is called « farce », which means "stuffing" in French. A farce in French is also a trick, or a practical joke. « Alors vous achetez ça parce que vous voulez faire une farce au mauvais temps ? » is what the man said — "So you're buying that farce because you want to play a trick on the bad weather?"

I guess he was right in a way, because one of the best ways to trick the bad weather is to eat well. We got the few things we needed for our meals over the next few days, and then we drove back to Saint-Aignan to buy some things in a good butcher shop. The cobblestone streets in the old town were pretty slippery, but not as slippery as the road that leads out of Noyers down by the river. That section of roadway was really iced over. The car was seriously fishtailing and I had to ease off on the accelerator. It was good that there was so little traffic.

And a little later we made it back up the hill to the house sans incident.

When we got home, the phone rang. It was our English friend D., who lives part of the time in Saint-Aignan and part of the time in Paris. He and his French wife C. are in Saint-Aignan for Christmas and they needed firewood. The man they had ordered wood from stood them up, probably because of the bad weather — he didn't show up Saturday to make the delivery as promised. We told them to come on over and we would give them some logs for the afternoon and evening.

They got here at 11:30 and that's apéro time, so we offered them a glass of wine. D. and C. were only recently married — it's a long story — and we've known him for several years but hardly know her at all. In fact, Walt had never met her before yesterday, and I'd only seen her with D. at the market and supermarket in Saint-Aignan a couple of times. In Saint-Aignan, they live in an old house right on the main market square in town, and she also has an apartment near Bastille in Paris.

We had a nice visit/get-acquainted session over glasses of wine, and then C. asked us if we had plans for Christmas Eve. We said no, not really, and she invited us over to their house Thursday evening for a light dinner of smoked salmon and salad. They are to be guests a big Christmas Day dinner chez some Americans who live down near Loches, and we of course are going to be cooking our goose, so a light dinner early Christmas Eve will be perfect.

I'll be especially curious to see their house, which they say is pretty much a construction zone for the time being. They are putting in a new kitchen, and one reason they are spending two weeks in Saint-Aignan right now is to get as much work done on the house as they can before they have to go back to Paris. She'll have to go back to work in January — she's close to retirement but not quite there yet.

C. said the house in Saint-Aignan has a metal staircase in it that was supposedly designed and built by Gustave Eiffel. Of course Eiffel ran a big company that manufactured all kinds of things out of metal back in the late 1800s, from staircases to bridges to the Tower. Still, C. said she was very proud to have such a fine architectural element in her house. Now that she's been here for a few years, however, she has seen similar staircases in several other houses around the area, so she's realized they are not really uncommon. "We all think the one we have in our particular house is the most beautiful one, of course," she said.

I asked C. how she, as a Parisian, came to choose Saint-Aignan when she decided to buy a house for her retirement. She said that when she was growing up she spent a summer or two at a colonie de vacances, a summer camp, here. She said she remembered the island in the river across from the old town, with its playground, swing sets, band shell, and beach. The kids used to swim in the river, with the big old church and château high above them on the opposite bank.

Then a few years ago, purely by coincidence, a colleague and old college friend of hers told C. she had decided to buy a retirement house in a place called Saint-Aignan. Surprised, C. told her friend she had fond childhood memories of the town herself. Then C. decided maybe she would come here to visit her old friend and study the possibilities for her own retirement years. Paris is too expensive, she said, and too "aggressive" — fast-paced, noisy, and exhausting — to be a good retirement choice. C. ended up buying a house in Saint-Aignan in 2006.

She also offered us her apartment in Paris as a place to stay if we ever want to go to the city while she is staying in Saint-Aignan, and she said it would be fine if we took Callie with us. Think of the possibilities...

20 December 2009

Snow and rain

We here in Saint-Aignan are not getting snow in the quantities that Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York are getting this weekend, but it's plenty for us. It snowed again in the wee hours yesterday, and we had flurries all during the day. The temperature outside has stayed below freezing for days, and the house feels cold despite hot radiators and the wood fire.

Apples in the snow

Houses here are just not built for this kind of frigid weather. The insulation isn't sufficient — in our house, there isn't much if any because it's built of concrete blocks and bricks that are simply plastered over on the inside. The temperature yesterday morning was nearly -7ºC/+20ºF. That's nothing compared to the cold they might have in Montréal or Chicagao, but then it's all in what you are used to and prepared for.

My "cabbage patch" is snow-covered, like everybody else's.

I remember a severe cold snap in San Francisco at Christmas many years ago. We lived in a top-floor apartment in a building downtown. With the outside temperature just below freezing — lows unheard of there — for two or three days we couldn't get the temperature in our apartment above 55ºF, even with the heat on full blast. We had to go to work to get warm. Here in Saint-Aignan, it's not quite that bad. The house gets up to 65 or 70.

Walks in the vineyard, even in snow, are still nice.

Weather today in Saint-Aignan will be more snow. Not much, I hope, and it may start turning into rain by tonight or tomorrow. That will be a mess. If we can get out today and do some necessary shopping, we'll be set for another few days and won't have to deal with the muck and slickness outside. Well, we'll have to walk the dog, but we won't have to take the car out again until Thursday. That's when we'll go pick up our Christmas goose at the market in Saint-Aignan.

The pond has been frozen over for a few days now.

This morning we want to go to the market over in Noyers-sur-Cher, on the other side of the river. It's not much more than 5 miles from the house. I hope the vendors we want to buy things from will have showed up. Wish us luck getting back up the steep hill that leads up to our hamlet.

On Saturday the road was salted and sanded,
but then it snowed some more.

I just checked the MéteoFrance web site. The forecast is for light snow this morning, heavier snow this afternoon, and rain in the evening turning to snow again overnight. It's also gotten pretty windy. Doesn't that sound nice?

19 December 2009

Tandoori chicken wings

We've been eating a lot of chicken wings lately. Until recently, I had never see them for sale in the markets or butcher shops here in Saint-Aignan. I figured you had to special-order them if you wanted just wings.

Over at the market in Noyers-sur-Cher one day, I noticed that the big poultry stand was selling chicken wings, but already cooked, to be eaten as finger food. I think they were labeled ailes de poulet à grignoter — chicken wings to snack on. I was tempted. Then a couple of days later, I noticed one-kilo packages of fresh, raw wings for sale at SuperU.

Tandoori-style chicken wings with Indian spices
are really good finger food.

First we made Buffalo-style wings, with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. The sauce for Buffalo wings is basically melted butter and Tabasco sauce. It's nothing very subtle or complex, that's for sure. But the ones we made were pretty good. Wings are always finger-food, as far as I'm concerned, and Buffalo-style wings are nice and messy to eat.

Tandoori wings turn golden brown
just like the Vietnamese-style wings.

A week or two later we made Vietnamese-style Golden Chicken Wings, using (and modifying) a recipe I got off the web. We prepared 12 to 16 wings (weighing 2 to 2½ lbs.), by cutting them apart at the joints. Use just the two meaty sections, and save the wing tips to make chicken stock. Marinate the meaty wing sections for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator in a sauce made with:
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup Vietnamese (or Thai) fish sauce
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
2 gloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. sugar (or honey)
Heat the oven up to 400ºF/200ºC. Take the wings out of the marinade and arrange them on a wire rack in a baking pan so they aren't touching. Put them in the hot oven for 30 minutes and baste them a time or two with the reserved marinade while they are cooking. They will be tasty.

Arrange the wings on racks in baking pans.

I didn't take any pictures of the Vietnamese-style wings. The pictures in this post are of the latest batch of wings we made, Tandoori-style. I don't know if I've ever had wings cooked this way. They were, I thought, the best wings we've made so far.

The method is the same. Cut the wings apart at the joints and use the two meaty sections in the recipe. Freeze the wing tips to use later in making stock for soup or sauces. The wings we have been getting are in 2 to 2½ lb. packages, and that gives us 12 to 16 wings, or 24 to 32 pieces after they're cooked.

Sprinkle on paprika or Tandoori Massala spices before baking.

Marinate the wing sections for 8 to 12 hours in this sauce:
1 cup plain yogurt
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (or vinegar)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 Tbsp. ginger root, peeled and minced
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. paprika
½ tsp. cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
½ tsp. ground cardamom
½ tsp. ground cloves or allspice
½ tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
2 tsp. salt, or to taste
Vary the spices to your taste. You could also use a pre-mixed Tandoori Massala powder instead of the individual spices listed in the marinade recipe, or even a spicy-hot curry powder, to make the yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, and onion marinade.

Wings with curried green garden peas and rice

To cook, take the wing sections out of the marinade and let the excess yogurt drip off. Arrange the wings on a rack in a baking pan and cook them for 30 minutes in a 400ºF/200ºC oven. You can sprinkle them with some red Tandoori spices or paprika for color before baking them if you want. You don't need to baste these wings; just let them cook until they are golden brown.

Are you hungry yet? I am.

Let the wings cool slightly and eat them warm, with your fingers. I made curried green peas and rice to have with the ones we made for lunch the other day.

Want to know how best to eat chicken wings like these? Look at this short video.

18 December 2009

Not good weather for travel

Here in Saint-Aignan:
  • the sun rises today at 8:28 a.m.
  • the sun sets today at 5:04 p.m.
  • yesterday's high was about 0ºC (32ºF)
  • the low today was -2.2ºC (+28ºF)
  • we have two inches (5 cm) of snow on the ground
  • skies are gray and the light is dim
  • more snow will fall today and over the weekend
It's probably not a good time to be traveling in Touraine — or anywhere in the northern parts of France. Paris has snow on the ground, and that's pretty unusual. Several subway lines are on strike, and ticket agents in some train stations are on strike too. The autoroutes are iced over and the cars are moving along like lines of escargots, both in and all around Paris.

Scene out the kitchen window

The Télématin news just ran a report on the A10 autoroute that runs from Paris to Bordeaux, passing through La Touraine. A lot of cars skidded off the roadway yesterday near Tours, so southbound traffic was reduced to one lane. And then in the evening the autoroute was completely shut down for trucks to get out to sand and salt the road. Drivers were required to exit the autoroute at the toll both south of Tours and get onto local roads to continue their journey. It looked like a royal mess — la pagaille.

Looking out the back window over the vineyard

It's good to be able to stay in the house. I haven't taken many pictures because there just isn't enough light to make it worthwhile to go walking around outside. And it's too cold anyway (I'll take Callie out this afternoon). When the sun shines again — maybe tomorrow, I say, ever the optimist — I'll take the camera outdoors. For tomorrow, we are right on the western edge of the area that is supposed to get more snow. For Sunday, we are in the middle of it.

The back yard, looking out toward the vegetable garden

It will be interesting to see if the bread lady and her little white van make it up the hill today with our baguette. If not, tant pis, I guess. I got the impression yesterday that she wasn't going to be too eager even to try it. We have yesterday's baguette in the freezer, because Walt made pizzas for lunch. Today, it'll be steamy hot vegetable soup.