30 September 2010


Yesterday I finally got my "new" furniture finished. The two pieces are shipping crates that were in our attic when we moved into this house in 2003. They were full of old papers — mostly French tax forms and form letters left here by the woman who owned the house previously. She was retired from the French tax administration.

The papers had no value. We'll burn them in the wood stove this winter. But when we cleaned up last spring, in anticipation of the attic conversion, I thought the crates were things I wanted to save. There are three of them. The man who had this house built about 45 years ago was employed by the French aeronautics and space agency. He spent a few years on assignment in Kourou, French Guyana, where French satellites are launched. That's in South America.

You can see the new hinges on the side of the crate.

When Monsieur Kientzy moved back to France, he and his wife apparently packed up some of their belongings and had them shipped back to Mareuil-sur-Cher, a village adjacent to Saint-Aignan, along the banks of the Cher River. Mr. Kientzy's first wife was a native of Mareuil, and they had this house built here.

This all happened 35 to 40 years ago. You can see the addresses on the lid of one of the crates. Les Bagneux is a hamlet in Mareuil.

Here's the door open so you can see inside. I plan to put in a shelf later.

I took two of the crates outdoors and scrubbed them with soap and a stiff brush. That was when the weather was hot, and I let the wooden crates dry in the hot sun. Then I varnished them, inside and out, several coats. I decided to use them as little tables, or plant stands, and to store things in them. I put feet on the bottom (the side, actually), and I put hinges on the lids to make them into doors. I attached one of those little magnet clips to each box to hold the doors shut.
This is the second crate. The third one isn't done yet.

And now I've finished that part of the job and I'm using the two crates in the loft, as you can see in the pictures here. For the moment, I have put printer paper in one, and in the other I'm storing a ton of CDs and DVDs that are in notebooks in plastic sleeves. Those items are heavy and give the boxes some heft and stability. They are ballast, I guess.

Sunset from the loft window on 26 September 2010.

I've become handy and resourceful in my old age. Well, I've always been resourceful, I think, on some level. When I worked in Paris, people — employers, colleagues — told me I was très débrouillard. La débrouillardise is resourcefulness. It means the ability to make things happen, to figure out creative solutions to everyday problems.

29 September 2010

Foies de volaille à la crème moutardée

The other day I noticed a container of fresh chicken livers in the fresh poultry section of the supermarket. The label on the container said foies de poulet, so they really were chicken and not turkey. Often what you find is "poultry livers" — foies de volaille. And that's okay too — turkey livers are as good as chicken livers. Duck livers might be even better.

Foies de poulet...

...poêlés au beurre

It had been a long time since I'd cooked chicken livers. Duck gizzards, yes — they're good in salads. So are chicken livers, but with the cool damp weather we're having right now, and given the number of tomato salads we've eaten over the past month, I decided I wanted to eat the chicken livers hot, in a sauce.

Here's the recipe I came up with:

Sautéed Chicken Livers
in a Creamy Mustard Sauce

1 lb. fresh chicken livers

2 shallots (or 1 small onion)
6 fl. oz. (¾ cup) heavy cream
2 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard
1 Tbsp. butter
Salt and pepper

Wash and trim the livers, cutting them into smaller pieces if they are very large. Sauté them in butter with the chopped shallot or onion.

Mix the mustard into the cream (crème fraîche if you can get it) in a bowl. When the livers are lightly browned, pour the cream sauce over them, pepper them generously, and let them cook for a few minutes on medium heat so that the mustard cream sauce thicken. Add salt to taste.

Serve the chicken livers and sauce with plain steamed rice, or with mashed, fried, or sautéed potatoes. Sprinkle chopped parsley over all.
The livers I bought seemed awfully large to be chicken livers, but I didn't mind. I cut them into bite-size pieces before I sautéed them. The package weighed only about ¾ lb., actually, so I reduced the other quantities proportionally.

Use good Dijon mustard.

A small portion of such a rich dish is sufficient, by the way, and it's very satisfying. We had ours with French fries, because we grew so many potatoes this summer. A dish with a cream sauce like this one needs to be followed by a good green salad in a tart vinaigrette dressing.

28 September 2010

More about tomatoes and grapes

The tomato wedges dried for a total of 8 hours over two days, but they also spent the night in an oven that was just gradually cooling down after I turned it off and went to bed. I kept the temperature between 80 and 90 ºC yesterday and the evening before, turning it down slightly toward the end of the drying time so that the tomatoes wouldn't burn or get too crispy.

And no, I didn't eliminate the seeds and pulp from these tomatoes as part of the preparation. For one thing, there were just to many of them and it would have taken too long. For tomates confites, it's better to do roast the flesh, sans the seeds and watery pulp, because they will be consumed while they are still juicy. You don't want them too juicy. For dried tomatoes, it doesn't matter, because they really dry out. That's my take on it.

Oven-dried tomatoes

I'm pretty happy with the result of the tomato-drying operation. The wedges really shrank, and they are leathery, not crispy. Toward the end of the process, I started removing the wedges that looked dry enough, letting others stay in the oven a while longer, to get everything done the same. I'm hoping the dried tomatoes keep in jars down in the cellar over the winter. It's cool down there, but not as cold as in the refrigerator. The oven-dried tomatoes I made last year kept fine in jars stored in the cellar.

Bruno and his team with their harvester and tractor & trailer

Bruno Denis of the Domaine de la Renaudie and his crew came in yesterday and harvested a parcel of Chardonnay grapes just out behind our house. It was a chilly gray day, with quite a bit of rain in the morning but less in the afternoon. I know the grapes harvested yesterday were Chardonnay and not some other white wine grape because Bruno's father, Jacques, told me last June that that's what those particular grapes are. They are probably used mostly in sparkling Touraine wines.

A trailer full of Chardonnay grapes

The red wine grapes are still out on the vines. The weather is improving slowly. Today the high is supposed to hit 65 or 66 ºF, according to MétéoFrance, and it should be basically dry with maybe a light shower. The house is staying fairly warm so I don't feel the need to turn on the central heating yet. Walt made a fire in the wood-burning stove again yesterday and after an hour or two I could feel the warmth up here in the loft, where my desk is.

With any luck, the current warming trend will continue and we won't need to start burning fuel oil for a while. It's not even October yet! Let the cold weather wait.

27 September 2010

Chilly rain, grapes, tomatoes, and walnuts

You'd never know it from looking at the picture (below) of yesterday morning's sunrise, but the weather has turned nasty. I lay in bed this morning listening to rain splat against the roof tiles and the skylight windows. It continues to rain. It's cold.

Sunrise over the Renaudière vineyard, 26 Sept. 2010

I just saw a grape harvester — a machine, not a person — drive out into the vineyard. I guess the grapes need to be brought in, even in the cold, gray rain. Or especially because a cold, gay rain is falling. This is the kind of weather than can spoil the harvest.

Grapes yesterday, wine tomorrow

The grapes are ripe and will burst if they stay wet like this. And they'll grow mold and mildew. The same is true of the tomatoes in our garden. I went out and picked another bucketful of them yesterday. There are plenty more in the garden, but unless the sun comes out they won't be good for long.

Tomatoes drying in the oven
Click on the pictures to see them at full size

Yesterday I cut a couple of dozen tomatoes, both yellow ones and red ones, into wedges and arranged them on baking sheets so I could dry them in the oven. European ovens, by the way, come with pans that slide onto tracks the way wire oven racks do. And they come with a wire rack too. Our Brandt oven came with a rack and a pan, and I saved a pan from our old French oven that also fits this one.

I'm drying both red and yellow tomatoes.

The oven pan is called a lèchefrite in French. That's a funny word. Literally, it means "lick" + "French fry" — the French-English dictionary calls it a "dripping-pan" (British) or a "broiler" (U.S.). It is the broiler pan, I guess, so you can set a roast on the wire rack with the dripping(s) pan under it. Or you can rotisserie the roast or a bird and catch the drippings in the oven pan.

Yesterday, I just put a silicone pad or some parchment paper (papier de cuisson, or "cooking paper") on the pans and arranged the tomato wedges on them. They went into a 90ºC oven for 3½ hours last night. At bedtime, I turned off the oven and just let the tomatoes sit there in the oven overnight. This morning, I turned the oven back on at that low temperature (190ºF). The tomato wedges will dry for another three to six hours today. The oven will warm up the house a little bit.

Walnuts from a tree out on the road
that runs through the vineyard

Another crop that's coming in is walnuts. There's a little walnut tree out along the dirt road that runs through the vineyard, just a few hundred meters from our house. This year it has a lot of nuts on it, and nobody is taking them. We've found a lot of them have been on the ground this week, because there have been some good gusts of wind recently. Every time one of us goes out there with the dog, he comes back with pockets full of walnuts.

The nuts are small but very good. To take advantage of them, Walt made a walnut pie. He used an American pecan pie recipe, with maple syrup in it. It's delicious. Here's the recipe:

American-style Walnut Pie

One blind-baked pie crust
2½ cups (one pint) shelled walnuts, toasted and chopped
4 Tbs. melted butter
3 large eggs
½ cup (4 fl. oz.) granulated (caster) sugar
1 cup (8 fl. oz.) maple syrup (or Golden Syrup)
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 400°F/200ºC. While the oven is warming up, put the shelled walnuts on a pan and slip them in for ten minutes to toast, stirring once or twice.

After the walnut meats are toasted, set them aside to cool and then chop them up. If you chop them while they are hot, the walnuts will crumble. It's best to wait the few minutes for them to cool down.

Once the oven has been heated, blind bake the crust for 10 minutes. In the meantime, assemble the filling by combining in a bowl the melted butter, eggs, sugar, and syrup. Whisk the ingredients together with a ½ teaspoon of salt to bring out the flavors. Beat the mixture until it's well blended. (Or use a mixer.) Finally, fold in the chopped walnuts.

Take the crust out of the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 275°F/140ºC. Pour the filling into the crust and level it. Set it in the middle of the oven and bake for 60 minutes. The filling might not be completely done in the center of the pie, but it will finish cooking as the pie cools.

Serve the walnut pie after it has fully cooled — some time in the refrigerator won't hurt it. If you then want to serve the pie warm, put it in a slow oven (250°F/125ºC) for 15 minutes.

26 September 2010

Winding down

Fall 2010. That's what has happened to our weather. It's almost cold in the house this morning, and we don't have working central heat yet. There's no water in the boiler, and therefore no steam in the radiators. The temperature outside is 7ºC, or about 45ºF, with a bright blue sky and a big moon.

En théorie, the heating contractor will come back this week and get everything going. Most of the radiators are hooked up, and it's just a matter of refilling everything, checking for leaks, and bleeding the air out of the radiators. We already had the boiler maintenance man in last week to replace a part — the expansion tank — so that the heating system will work properly. And we ordered and took delivery of 2000 liters — 500 gallons — of fuel oil.

The back gate — did I mention the hedge that needs trimming?

We also had a roofer/chimney sweep in last week to clean out the wood stove and the chimney. That maintenance is required by insurance every year. The man also went up on the roof and cleaned out the valley between the dormer window over the kitchen and the main roof, to try to prevent the kinds of leaks we had in June 2007 and again this past July. We may end up having to have that part of the roof rebuilt.

The last gasp of the 2010 sunflowers and nasturtiums

That's what it's like getting the house ready for winter. Soon, we'll need to start bringing potted plants inside to protect them from frost. And we'll need to clean up the vegetable garden by harvesting the rest of the tomatoes, eggplant, corn, and peppers. If the weather doesn't go too wet, I'll run the tiller through the garden plots again. I'm still hoping for some warm, dry days before the dreary rains set in around the first of November.

Autumnal skies, yesterday afternoon

Then we'll be ready to deal with the falling leaves. We rake up most of them and spread them over the vegetable garden plots to keep the weeds down. And then they'll get tilled into the soil early next spring. It doesn't get cold enough here in Saint-Aignan to stop grass and weeds from growing over the garden plots in wintertime, unless you put down tarps or a layer of dead leaves.

Working on tomatoes yesterday morning

We have a lot of wood to cut too. Walt has started on the woodpile out front, cutting the long logs into shorter sections that will fit into our wood-burning stove. In addition, there are at least three trees out back — including one mostly dead apple tree and two plum trees that blew over in last winter's storms — that all need to be sawed up and stacked as firewood for coming winters.

The sauce pot

Meanwhile, the tomatoes keep coming. I trimmed, cored, and sliced three or four dozen Roma tomatoes yesterday and put them in a big pot with wine, onions, carrots, bay leaves, thyme, and garlic to make sauce. We'll have to pack all that up for freezing, or put it in canning jars, today or tomorrow.

I'm almost looking forward to winter, when we can relax and just enjoy cooking, eating, reading, and waiting for springtime to arrive.

25 September 2010

Tomates confites

It's strange to have all these ripe tomatoes so late in September, but that's what we have this year. Summer was late, and now autumn seems to have arrived early in the Loire Valley.

Yesterday, I made « tomates confites ». That's hard to translate, and the best I have come up with is "slow-roasted tomatoes." I blogged about them back in August 2009, and here's a link to that post.

A mix of red and yellow tomatoes trimmed,
seeded, and seasoned for slow roasting

The verb confire describes a key concept in French cooking. You probably know what confiture is — it's jam, or what we call "preserves" of fruit. That's the same term. There are also fruits confits — candied fruit. And then there's confit de canard — "preserved" or slow-cooked duck. It's very common on French restaurant menus these days, and is a staple of the traditional diet in southwestern France. All of these foods have one thing in common: slow cooking.

Set the tomato wedges on a baking sheet, leaving space
between them so that they can dry out as they roast.

Confire means to preserve a food product by slow cooking either in sugar or in fat. When you make tomates confites, you cook the tomatoes slowly not in sugar but in olive oil. Actually, there is some sugar in the mix, along with salt, pepper, and thyme or some other herb. The preserving agent, though, is oil, and low heat. The sugar just emphasizes the tomatoes' natural sweetness, and it's optional.

Make a lot of them. They go fast.
These are ready to go into the oven for three hours.

Take good ripe tomatoes and cut them into wedges. Peel them first, if you want to. Cut out the cores. Using your fingers, a knife, or a spoon, remove the seeds, juice, and pulp from the wedges, leaving just the firm flesh. Save the pulp, juice, and seeds, which you can add to a tomato sauce later.

Put the tomato wedges in a big bowl and season them fairly generously with salt and pepper. Add a good pinch of dried thyme or some other herb, and a good pinch of sugar. Stir the tomatoes around so they are evenly seasoned, and then pour some olive oil over them. Stir them again so they are coated in the oil.

Slow-roasted tomato wedges are almost candied,
but with very little added sugar.

Place the wedges on a baking sheet — on a silicone pad or parchment paper, so they won't stick — and put the pan in a slow oven for 2½ to 3 hours. I "roast" them at 90 to 95 ºC — that's between 190 and 200 ºF. The tomato liquid slowly evaporates, the oil and seasonings penetrate into the tomato flesh. You end up with little sweet morsels that you can eat almost like candy.

Tomates confites are naturally sweet and succulent.

Tomates confites can be served as a side dish, in a salad, as a kind of sauce for pasta, or — the way I like them — on little slices of bread or toast spread with soft, fresh goat cheese — a Selles-sur Cher cheese, for example — or Philadephia-style cream cheese. Make a lot of them, because they go fast. You can keep them in the refrigerator for a few days, by the way.

24 September 2010

Sweet corn (maize, maïs) chowder

Yesterday we brought in about the last of our sweet corn — that's maize or maïs — crop. It was 10 more ears, most of which were fully formed and pretty. Two or three were kind of stunted or only partially covered in kernels, but that's not bad. Sweet corn was a garden success this year.

Last year we planted only 6 or 8 stalks of corn, and that wasn't enough. Corn needs to be planted in quantity and the stalks need to be close together to make sure that cross-pollination takes place. You only get one or two ears per plant, so to make it worthwhile you have to plant a lot of it. We had about two dozen sweet corn plants, of two or three varieties, this year.

Some of the ears of corn that we harvested yesterday

That gave us enough corn so that we could really enjoy it in August and September. Sweet corn is not something you can find easily in France. Eating corn on the cob or corn soups isn't part of French custom. About the only way you ever see corn, in fact, is in salads — often in something called a salade mexicaine, with corn kernels and tomatoes. And that corn nearly always comes out of a can. They don't even sell frozen corn in the supermarkets.

These are pork lardons — smoked, salted, or plain —that you
can buy in packages at the supermarket in France.

We've eaten corn on the cob a half-dozen times now, and Walt made a batch of creamed corn a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday I decided to make corn chowder for lunch, with bacon and potatoes in it. I was inspired by a recipe in an American book called Cooking Across the South, published in 1980.

Instead of powdered cayenne pepper, we included a
sliced fresh cayenne pepper from the garden
in the soup. The herb is parsley.

I think you could make this chowder with canned or frozen corn kernels, but fresh is obviously better. You cut the kernels off the cob with a knife, standing the ear of corn on its end and slicing downward. Then scrape the ear to get all the good pulp and juice for the soup. Add as much water as you need to get a soupy consistency.
Corn Chowder

6 to 8 oz. diced ham or bacon (lardons)
1 Tbsp. butter
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups whole kernel corn (about 6 ears)
4 cups peeled diced potatoes
½ cup corn meal
½ cup cream
½ cup milk
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 tsp. turmeric (for color)
½ tsp. nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups hot water (or more as needed)
1 Tbsp. sugar (or more to taste)
fresh herbs (for garnish)

In a heavy kettle or pot, fry the pork lardons (diced ham or bacon) in a little butter until lightly browned; add onion and garlic, and cook until tender.

Add corn, potatoes, and corn meal, and stir well. Add seasonings to taste, and cover with boiling water. Add more or less sugar, to taste, depending on how sweet the corn is.

Cover pot and simmer for 45 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally. Serve hot in soup bowls and garnish each serving with fresh chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil, or tarragon, for example).

Some recipes call for using flour or cracker crumbs as a thickener in this kind of chowder, but to me it makes sense to thicken it with finely ground corn meal, if you can find it. Another way to thicken the soup is to use a potato masher to break up the cooked potatoes before you serve it.

23 September 2010

Lost in audio-video hell heaven

I'm kind of preoccupied today with trying to figure out how this new CanalSat satellite decoder box works. I'm making progress but it's not easy.

The box is called Le Cube. Cute, eh? As you can see, it is mostly white with a black display. On the back, it has HDMI and Péritel connectors. Surprisingly, the package contains all the cables you might need. the remote control is also mostly white, with a little bit of black, so you feel like you ought to wear white gloves when you handle it.

That's Le Cube on the left, on top of the other components.
You can also see today's weather forecast for France.

Little things drive you crazy: the manual says you can set the display on the Cube to show either the current TV channel or the current time. We can't figure out how to get it to display the time. And getting all the sound and video to play together nicely is the goal.

Le Cube — it doesn't really fit in with other audio-video components.

Fact is, out here in the country, the TV and the Internet are our two main entertainment media. There's not much in the way of cinema or theater here in Saint-Aignan. So having a good TV system, with a lot of films, sports events, and music is crucial. We don't even get much in the way of radio, except through CanalSat.

I'll be back soon.

22 September 2010

A day in the life

I drove up to Blois yesterday morning. I had several errands to run up there. Walt stayed at home to start sawing some wood for the stove this fall and winter.

My first stop was across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher at the offices of the company that we have a contract with for maintenance and emergency service on the boiler that heats water for our radiators — our central heating system. I had called last week and told them that something called the vase d'expansion, the expansion tank, needed to be replaced. The old one was dead, according to the plumber who installed new radiators upstairs this summer.

When I called last week, Béatrice in the office told me she would get a price for me right away and I should have it by Friday. Then they would be able to do the work, if I approved the price. We pay for parts but labor is included in the service contract, so it's in our interest to have boiler repairs done by this company instead of bringing in anybody else. Needless to say, we still hadn't heard anything from Béa on Monday, so I went over to show my face there yesterday.

I was ready for some kind of confrontation, based on the fact that a boiler repair — it needed a new fuel pump — last winter had taken about three weeks, with constant delays. I was not happy then, because the weather was very cold and we needed a working boiler. I expected the same kind of hassle this year. But I was very polite. I waited a few minutes while Béatrice took two or three phone calls. Then I explained who I was and why I was there.

She got out a big notebook and started thumbing through pending orders and estimates. There must have been a dozen of them. Mine was the last one, on the bottom of the pile. Oh yes, Béa said, I was going to get back to you. Ha! Anyway, there it was, and the damage was minimal — la douloureuse came to just 50 euros.

And the best news was that she said she'd send out a technician later that very same day to replace the tank. So now the job is done and we're ready to turn on the heat as soon as we need it. The man came to the house at about 3:00 and the work was done in less than half an hour.

So that was a success. I left Béa's office and headed toward Blois on narrow roads through villages, fields, and vineyards. I saw people out harvesting grapes in several places. And I got kind of lost, but it was no big deal. The little roads are not very well marked out in the country. I saw a sign for Sambin, a village I know, and went that way. Well, there were no more signs, and I guess I took a wrong turn, because I ended up in Feings and Fougères-sur-Bièvre, villages I'm also familiar with. But I had gone out of my way, but not very far.

My first stop in Blois was at a big antiques/second-hand store right on the banks of the Loire, across from the center of town. I've been there before and wanted to check out the furniture again. We're looking for night stands and maybe a new coffee table. When I drove up, it was obvious the store was not yet open. It was 10:15 a.m.

I peered in the windows and saw no sign of anybody. The sign on the door said « Ouvert tous les jours de 10h à 19h ». Sure! But not today! Typical in the French countryside — you can never be sure a store will be open for business, no matter what the normal or posted hours are. So I gave up on finding furniture.

I drove on over to the new Auchan hypermarket just on the south side of Blois. It was open, as you'd expect. We needed a few things: some nightlights we had seen there last week but had not bought, and a can of paint for repainting an old piece of furniture. We had checked for these things at Bricomarché and they were twice as expensive there as at Auchan.

We also wanted some more walnuts. We had bought some last week. They were noix fraîches, fresh walnuts, sold in bulk, and they were less expensive than the walnuts sold in cellophane bags. The nuts were kind of damp, as if they had just been removed from their green husks. Walt wasn't sure he wanted them, but I did.

When we first cracked a couple of the fresh walnuts, it was obvious that they were too fresh. They needed drying, so we set them on a pan out in the sun for a while, and even dried them in a low oven for a while. When we cracked a couple more, it was obvious they needed to be toasted in the oven before Walt baked them into a zucchini... well, a patty-pan cake. It all seemed like a lot of trouble for just a few walnuts in a cake.

But guess what? After toasting in the oven and then being baked into the cake, they were the best walnuts we've ever tasted. It was worth it. So I went back to Auchan and bought another three pounds of the fresh walnuts yesterday.

I also saw that Auchan was selling sweet potatoes from Spain for one euro a kilo. Usually they cost about 2.50 €/kg, so that was a bargain. They're orange-fleshed sweet potatoes — the kind we like — and not the white-fleshed ones we find more often. So I bought three big sweet potatoes for today's lunch. I would have bought more if we had room for them in the freezer.

On the way home, I drove down to the town of Selles-sur-Cher to go see the people at an electronics/appliance store there called Gitem. Again, I thought I was lost on back roads for a few minutes, but I soon saw village names I recognized on road signs and found my way. It was getting to be 11:30 or so and I wanted to be sure to arrive at the Gitem store before noon, thinking that it probably closes for two hours at lunchtime, like a lot of other stores do.

Gitem is an agent for the CanalSat satellite television company that we get TV service from. With the move into the new space upstairs, we decided it was time to upgrade our system. We wanted new decoder boxes, with better features and more recording time. For now, we have only one decoder that has a hard disk for recording in it. The other is just the standard box, with no recording features. (Life is tough, right?)

We've never been in love with the decoders we've had for the past seven years. The one that's a PVR (a TIVO kind of thing) is unreliable and hard to use. Sometimes there are jumps and skips in the movies and documentaries we record to watch later. Recently, I've been recording and then transferring to DVD a lot of old French moves by directors like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Claude Sautet, and I want the recordings to be good.

CanalSat now offers a new decoder with double the recording time and HDTV capabilities. But figuring out how to exchange our old boxes for new ones had seemed like a hassle, and inertia had set in. Auchan is also a CanalSat agent, but last week when we went there the man in charge told us he couldn't help us. He said we needed to call CanalSat in Paris and probably ship them our old satellite boxes before they would send us new ones. That didn't sound like an attractive option.

Then I thought about the Gitem store over in Selles, just 10 miles up the river from us. That's where we had gotten our receivers seven years ago, and Gitem had sent out a crew to install the satellite dish on the side of the house. For a price of course, but it was convenient and fairly painless back then.

At 11h40 yesterday, I went into the Gitem store and stood in line with two or three other customers, waiting to talk to a clerk. The clerk who finally was free to help me said he didn't really know anything about CanalSat when I told him what I wanted. He said to wait and somebody more compétent would come to help me. More and more people were coming into the shop, and there wasn't really a line or an order of priority.

After a while, a woman I recognized from seven years ago looked up from behind the counter and said « C'est à qui maintenant ? » — who's next? I jumped in and spoke up right away, knowing that if I didn't three other people were going to get ahead of me. One or two of them glared at me, but the fact was I had been there waiting since before they arrived.

I explained what I wanted and the woman said, oh, no problem. You just have to bring me the old boxes and I'll give you new ones. She even went back to the stock room to make sure she had two of the new decoder units available. She did! What a relief. The new decoder is called Le Cube and it has a recording time of 80 hours.

So this morning I'm on my way back over to Selles with our two old decoder boxes. If this all works out, it will have been a lot easier than calling CanalSat, being on hold surely for 30 or 40 minutes, and then dealing with the hassle of shipping the old decoders back to the company warehouse. Not to mention waiting who knows how long for the new ones to arrive. Wish me luck!

20 September 2010

Making moussaka

Moussaka is a Greek casserole (in French, a gratin) of eggplant slices and a meat sauce made with tomatoes, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices. The spices — cinnamon and nutmeg, along with parsley and bay leaves — give the sauce and the dish a distinctive flavor. The eggplant is pre-cooked, either in the oven or in a skillet, with olive oil. After the casserole is baked in the oven, the eggplant is soft and succulent.

Eggplants/aubergines from the vegetable garden

This recipe, which is a French version of moussaka, calls for putting a layer of sliced potatoes on the bottom of the casserole. The potato slices give the moussaka an added dimension. They form a sort of pie crust on the bottom of the baking dish.

A layer of partially cooked potato slices for the bottom of the dish...

...and a layer of partially cooked eggplant slices over that

We almost never buy eggplants (called "aubergines" — the French word — by the British) but we grow them in our vegetable garden here in Saint-Aignan. For us, moussaka is a once-a-year treat these days. It's one of the first rituals of fall, or late summer, when the eggplant crop comes in, and there are fresh tomatoes from the garden to cook with them.

A sauce of ground meat, tomatoes, spices, and aromatics

The best moussaka is made with ground lamb, but ground beef works fine too. The cinnamon and nutmeg, along with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs, give whatever meat you use a good flavor. I've never tried it, but I'm sure moussaka would be very good made with ground turkey. Last year, I posted a recipe for a kind of moussaka using zucchini instead of eggplant. That would be courgettes instead of aubergines...

A layer of thick cheese sauce goes over the top...

...with some more grated cheese to make a good crust

Julia Child has a fancy French recipe for moussaka in her Mastering the Art... and The French Chef books, and a simpler one in The Way to Cook. She adds chopped mushrooms to the sauce, which would be good. She says she uses either mozzarella or Swiss cheese in the sauce. You could also use grated parmesan in the sauce or on top.

Moussaka as it comes out of the oven

Here's my translation/adaptation of the French recipe I used to make the moussaka in the pictures here.

with sliced potatoes

3 or 4 eggplants/aubergines (2¼ lbs.)
1 lb. ground meat (lamb, beef, turkey, etc.)
4 tomatoes (1 lb.), chopped
½ lb. (or more) potatoes, sliced
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
olive oil for frying
3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
a pinch of nutmeg
½ tsp. cinnamon
2 bay leaves
½ cup red wine
½ cup grated swiss cheese

For the cheese sauce:
4 Tbsp. flour
4 Tbsp. butter
2½ cups milk (or more)
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 egg yolk
½ cup grated swiss cheese

Cut the eggplants into rounds ¼-inch thick. Put the slices in a colander, salt them generously, and let them disgorge or “sweat” for an hour.

Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and cut them into thin slices. Peel the tomatoes if you want.

Make the meat sauce. In a skillet or wok, cook the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until they’re transparent and just starting to turn a golden brown. Add the ground meat (lamb, beef, turkey, etc.) and season it with salt, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Let it cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Then stir in the chopped tomatoes, some chopped parsley, the red wine, and the tomato paste. Let it all cook together for15 minutes longer, until nearly all the liquid has evaporated. Set it aside.

After an hour, rinse and pat dry the eggplant slices. Arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet brushed with olive oil. Brush the tops of the slices with olive oil. Put the baking sheet in a 400ºF/200ºC oven for ten to 15 minutes, until the vegetables are softened and starting to brown. Do the same with the sliced potatoes. If you prefer, you can cook the eggplant and potato slices by batches in a skillet with olive oil instead of in the oven.

Make the cheese sauce in a separate pan by cooking flour in melted butter for a minute or two, and then gradually stirring in milk (+ some cream if you want it rich) until you have a thick, creamy sauce. Add salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Off the heat, stir in the egg yolk and the grated cheese.

Putting the moussaka together
Put the pre-cooked potato slices in a layer in the bottom of a baking dish. Then put on a layer of pre-cooked eggplant slices (half the total you are using). Spoon half of the meat sauce over all.

Put on another layer of eggplant slices and another layer of meat sauce. Finally, pour the thick cheese sauce over the top and smooth it out with a spoon or spatula.

Cooking the moussaka
Set the baking dish in the oven at 350ºF/180°C for 45 minutes. After about 20 minutes, sprinkle grated cheese over the top and let it melt and turn golden brown.

Take the cooked moussaka out of the oven and let it rest at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before you serve it. It’s good accompanied by a green salad dressed with vinaigrette. And bread and red wine, of course.

Tomates du jardin potager

It's chilly again this morning — in the mid 40s F. Walt said he actually saw frost yesterday morning over in the neighbors' big yard. Nighttime skies are crystal clear, so the temperature really drops. Today's high is supposed to be in the 70s, and it will feel warmer than that out in the sun.

Seventy-five ripe red tomatoes

We're feeling better about the chilly mornings because yesterday we harvested tomatoes. We picked about 100 or more, all red. And about 75 of those were already perfectly ripe. We also picked some that still need ripening.

Peppers and tomatoes, yesterday's haul

We picked peppers and eggplants too. There are cayenne peppers, jalapeños, and something you might call banana peppers. Peppers are easy to preserve. You just wash them, poke a hole in each one with a skewer or a needle, pack them in jars, and pour boiling vinegar over them. They'll keep indefinitely. We're still using peppers that we packed that way in 2004 — the last time we had a good pepper crop.

The 2010 red tomato harvest at La Renaudière

Now we have to figure out what to do with all these tomatoes. Last year we successfully oven-dried quite a few of them, so that's an option. We can always make and can more sauce, like the sauce we put up a few days ago. That's a longer, more involved process. If we had room in the freezer, we could just freeze some of the tomatoes whole, for sauce-making during the winter. But the freezer is pretty much full.

With the eggplants, some tomatoes, and some potatoes from the garden, we made moussaka yesterday. More about that later. Here's the recipe in French, for anybody who's interested:
avec pommes de terre

3 ou 4 aubergines (1 kg)
500 g de viande hachée
4 tomates (500 g)
300 g de pommes de terre
70 g de concentré de tomate
1 oignon
1 gousse d'ail
huile d'olive
noix de muscade
½ c. à café de cannelle
2 feuilles de laurier
10 cl de vin rouge
50 g de gruyère râpé

Béchamel (au fromage) :
60 g de farine
60 g de beurre
70 cl de lait
Sel, poivre, noix de muscade
1 jaune d'œuf
50 g de gruyère râpé

Découper les aubergines en rondelles de 3 à 4 mm d’épaisseur. Faites dégorger les aubergines avec du sel durant 1h.

Pendant ce temps, épluchez les pommes de terre et coupez-les en rondelles de 2 mm d’épaisseur. Pelez les tomates.Rincez puis épongez les aubergines

Faites revenir les aubergines à l’huile d’olive dans une poêle puis réservez. Faites revenir les pommes de terre à l’huile d’olive et réservez. On peut les faire au four.

Faites revenir à l’huile d’olive l’oignon et l’ail hachés. Ajoutez la viande hachée et assaisonnez avec le sel, le poivre, la muscade, la cannelle, les feuilles de laurier, et faites cuire 10 min. Ajoutez les tomates pelées et coupées en morceaux, le concentré de tomate, et le vin, puis laissez mijoter 15 min, jusqu’à ce que le liquide soit évaporé

Faites une sauce béchamel. Salez, poivrez et ajoutez de la noix de muscade râpée. Hors feu, ajoutez le jaune d’œuf puis le gruyère râpé.

Le montage de la moussaka
Disposez dans le fond d’un moule à soufflé ou à gratin, une couche de pommes de terre. Disposez ensuite une couche d’aubergines et puis la moitié de la viande hachée.

Disposez une nouvelle couche d’aubergines, et terminez la moussaka avec le restant de viande hachée.Pour finir, versez la béchamel.

Cuisson de la moussaka
Enfournez la moussaka à 180°C durant 45 min. A la moitié du temps de cuisson, disposez sur le dessus de la moussaka 50 g de gruyère râpé et laissez gratiner.

A la sortie du four, patientez 10 minutes avant de déguster la moussaka, qui s’accompagne très bien avec une salade verte.

Click here for the translation.

19 September 2010

Sauvignon rose grapes?

There's Cabernet Franc, the grape of Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny wines, all produced in the Loire Valley between Tours and Angers. Here in eastern Touraine, in the Cher River Valley, a lot of Cabernet Franc is grown and made into varietal or blended wines too. From what I've read, Cabernet Franc is the grape that is closest in character to the wild ancestor of all the Cabernets. It's used as a blending grape in Bordeaux.

Red wine grapes at La Renaudière, outside Saint-Aignan

Then there's Cabernet Sauvignon. Along with Merlot, it's the most important red wine grape in the Bordeaux region. Cabernet Sauvignon is a hybrid that was "discovered" in the 17th century in southwestern France. Somehow — randomly, it seems — Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes had cross-pollinated (I think), producing the new varietal. Cabernet Sauvignon is now grown worldwide and is the most prominent red wine grape of, for example, the Napa Valley in California.

The Renaudière vineyard in mid-September

Sauvignon Blanc is also a Cabernet grape. It's the quintessential white wine grape of the Loire Valley, from Sancerre west to Tours (the Touraine whites, but also Quincy, Reuilly, and Pouilly whites). It's also a much-used white wine grape in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and California. It makes steely, grassy white wines.

Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay grapes
are grown at La Renaudière. One day I'll learn to tell the
grapes, and not just the wines, apart.

Finally, there's a Sauvignon variety that 80-something Jacques Denis, who has tended the vines at la Renaudière outside Saint-Aignan his whole life, and who probably helped plant many of them, told me, a couple of months ago, that he calls Sauvignon Rose. That's rose without an accent, not rosé — one syllable, not two. Rose means pink in French. I searched for Sauvignon Rose on the internet for a while, but found nothing.

Sauvignon Rose? Or Sauvignon Gris...

There are several rows of the so-called Sauvignon Rose grapes right out behind our back gate. Just this morning, I found something that leads me to believe Sauvignon Rose might be another name for a variety otherwise known as Cabernet Gris — "Gray" Cabernet. Vin gris is a name given to very pale vin rosé. It seems that Cabernet Gris is especially well adapted for the production of sweet wines — vins moelleux ("tender" or "mellow") or or even liquoreux (the sweetest, with more than 50 grams of residual sugar per liter).

White wine grapes at La Renaudière

By the way, Jacques Denis is out hunting this morning. Walt talked to him, and Callie went up and kissed him. She especially loves Jacques, for some reason. Whenever she sees him in the vineyard, she runs to greet him. With other people who work the vineyard, Callie is much more standoffish. Jacques told Walt that he and the other local hunters are after foxes this morning.

18 September 2010

Where the grapes are

Life here in Saint-Aignan revolves around grapes. They're in the vineyards, of course, and on our table as wines. We walk through them every day. We admire them. We quaff them. They are an important part of the scenery, the taste, the smell of the region. And I speak as a consumer, not a producer and grower. Imagine what life is like for them.

The grape harvest — les vendanges, they are called, and the verb is vendangerje vendange, tu vendanges, nous vendangeons, ils vendangent — will begin this coming week. The weather is cooperating. Nights and mornings are chilly. Our low was near 45ºF this morning. Afternoons are sunny and, for the moment, dry. At least here in the north of France. Down south, they are having rain. But then their vendanges may already be done.

Grapes in September in the Renaudière vineyard
outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher

It's the time of year when all the supermarkets hold their Foire aux vins — their wine fair. A big section of the market is given over to shelves and shelves of bottles, six to a box instead of 12, with wines from all parts of France. Some supermarkets set up a huge tent in their parking lot to hold all the wine. Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne, Loire, Rhône, and on and on. People load up their carts and head to the caisses with a supply of good wine for the year.

Around Saint-Aignan, we don't buy wine that way. Why buy bottles when you can buy wines by the jug and bottle it yourself? We have our own plastic jugs, and the people at the wineries and co-ops pump wine into them using what looks like a gas-station pump. It's more economical and it's more ecological, not hauling all those heavy bottles around.

We have our own supply of bottles that we've saved over the years. We have a corking machine and corks. We also use plastic stoppers that can keep the wines drinkable for a few weeks or months. The only thing we don't bother with is labels. We don't keep wine long enough for that to be worth the trouble. Besides, it's all wines from the Loire Valley — Touraine wines.

We hardly ever drink wine that comes from other regions of France. Here in Touraine, we have fine reds made from Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Côt (a.k.a. Malbec), or Pinot Noir grapes. We have superior whites made with Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, or Chardonnay grapes. We have still wines and sparkling wines. We have blends and varietals. We have sweet and dry wines.

We also have rosé wines — some of the best. Dry. Fruity. Sparkling. On the news yesterday, it was reported that the French now sell more rosé wine than white wine. A lot of the rosé gets exported, and a lot of it to America. I hope people over there are enjoying it.