28 February 2011

Tartiflette au Camembert

A lot of tartiflette passed down people's gullets in France over the last two weeks. That's because this is winter vacation time, and so many people go spend a week or two in the Alps, whether they actually ski or not. They all eat — that you can be sure of.

And one of the special dishes people eat in the Alps when the weather is cold and snowy is a fairly recent (1980s) concoction called « tartiflette ». It was invented and has been promoted by the people who make the Alpine cheese called Reblochon. Basically, la tartiflette is cheese melted over potatoes. "Potatoes au gratin," we would say — un gratin de pommes de terre in French.

Tartiflette au Camembert

Tartiflette is not all that different from the Auvergne specialty called « la truffade » — I've posted about that potato dish here and here. Truffade is made with Cantal cheese from the mountains of the French Massif Central. It and tartiflette are the kind of filling comfort food people eat in winter. Truffade is cooked in a frying pan on top of the stove. Tartiflette is cooked in a baking dish in the oven.

Reblochon is a cow's milk cheese made in the Alps. It's what you're supposed to use to make une tartiflette. But if you don't have any Reblochon, you can of course use other cheeses to make the gratin. In my case, I had an extra Camembert. They were on sale — two for the price of one — a week or two ago, and one of the two I bought was still there in the fridge, unopened. I had finished the first one last week.

Ready for the oven

In preparation, I used Google to search for Tartiflette au Camembert and of course immediately found a half-dozen recipes. That was confirmation that my idea would work and was worth a try. So I forged ahead. I had just bought a 2.5 kg sack of nice waxy boiling potatoes at Intermarché over in Valençay.

Nice waxy boiling potatoes

For tartiflette, don't slice the potatoes too thin — you want them to hold together and have a good potato-y texture in the dish. You can dice them if you want to.

The other ingredients are onions (many recipes list them as optional) and pork lardons (also optional). Those are the same ingredients used to make truffade, and I had both on hand. I added a few cloves of garlic. Another ingredient that is listed in most of the recipes I looked at is some good crème fraîche, or heavy cream. This is a pretty rich dish, as you have understood.

The first step in making tartiflette is to "parboil" the sliced potatoes. Parboiling means cooking vegetables in boiling or simmering water — without salt, in the case of potatoes at least — until they are just starting to get tender. For tartiflette, the potato slices or chunks will finish cooking later in a hot oven, and in the mixture of cream and melted cheese.

Meanwhile, lightly sauté some pork lardons — half a pound at most of chunks of ham or bacon, or even turkey or chicken, smoked de préférence — with one large onion, diced, and maybe three chopped garlic cloves, in butter or oil. Meanwhile, cut a Camembert or other cheese into four pieces, as you see in the picture just below. You can remove or not remove as much of the crust of the cheese as you want. I left it on.

Cut the Camembert in half, and then cut
each half in half through the center.

Drain the parboiled potatoes. Put a few sautéed lardons and onions in the bottom of a baking dish. Lay in enough potato slices over that to cover, and then strew on some more lardons and onions. Lay in a top layer of potatoes.

Pour on about half a cup of cream, seasoned with a little salt and some black pepper. Place the pieces of Camembert cheese over the top, crust facing up. What will happen in the oven is that the soft interior of the cheese will melt and flow down into the potatoes, mingling with the cream. The Camembert crust will stay on top and get brown.

You can eat the cheese crust if you like it, or you can remove it and discard it. I thought that cut into small pieces and eaten with some potatoes, the Camembert crust was pretty tasty.

Because I had only one Camembert and about a kilo (nearly 2½ lbs.) of potatoes, I made a second dish that was exactly the same as the first but for the type of cheese I used: Comté. That's a cheese of the type we call Swiss cheese in the U.S. Because I didn't think the Comté cheese would liquefy the way the Camembert would, I put two layers of it in — one between the two layers of potatoes, and then the cheese layer on the top.

The two gratins de pommes de terre cooking in the oven

Gratins are fairly free-form dishes, when you come right down to it. Some recipes get codified because they are so good — among them, gratin dauphinois (potatoes, milk, garlic), gratin de chou-fleur (cauliflower, cheese, cream), and tartiflette (see above). But in fact, you can make a gratin with whatever vegetables, meats, and dairy products you think would be good together.

27 February 2011

A thunderstorm called « une giboulée »

It was about 5:30 yesterday afternoon. Walt had gone out to walk with the dog a little earlier than usual. We'd had hazy sunshine all afternoon, after a couple of hours of fine rain in the late morning.

I was sitting at my computer, looking at blog comments, e-mails, and newspaper headlines. As I looked at the screen, I kept hearing rumbling sounds. Was the furnace on? I didn't think it was. Maybe it was an airplane going over. But it would have to be more than one plane, because the rumbling noises kept starting up again and again.

Did I tell you you that we heard a big boom a few days ago? I was on the phone with our friend Cheryl in California, around
7 p.m. France time. She had talked to some mutual friends who live near Christchurch, in New Zealand, and found out they and their house survived the big quake. That was good news. Then, in the middle of our conversation, there was a loud boom that rattled the windows. From downstairs, Walt said he felt the whole house shake.

Rain and ice on an upstairs window

My first thought was that it was an earthquake. I know from life in California that sometimes you can feel earthquakes without hearing anything, but sometimes you can hear earthquakes without feeling any shaking. It all depends on whether or not you are sitting still, or lying in bed, when the quake happens. If you're moving around, you might hear it but not feel it.

After Walt went outside and inspected the exterior of the house, we decided that it was a sonic boom, and we heard planes go over for hours that evening. We wondered if it had anything to do with evacuating French ressortissants (the word for "nationals") from Libya. But we never found out anything more about it. Friends of ours who live seven or eight miles east of us also heard and felt the boom, though.

With these Velux roof windows, you can
always tell if it's raining or not.

Yesterday it wasn't a sonic boom or an earthquake. I finally got up and opened up one of the Velux windows here in our loft. What I saw was a jet black sky off to the northwest. And the rumblings were thunder. Then I saw Walt and Callie coming down the vineyard road toward the house.

Walt said he not only heard the thunder but from his perspective he could see amazing flashes of lightning. The storm seemed to be going by to the north of us. Then suddenly there were some strong gusts of wind and rain started falling. Actually, it was a little bit of rain mixed with a whole lot of ice pellets.

Our neighbors' little summer/country house, across the street

One advantage of having these skylight windows up here in the loft is that it's easy to see if it's raining outdoors — or snowing, or hailing. What we had yesterday was an ice shower. It fell pretty hard and made a lot of noise on the skylights. It lasted about an hour. There wasn't enough ice, or the pellets weren't big enough, and the wind wasn't strong enough, to cause any kind of damage.

As it had appeared to be doing, the thunderstorm passed by to the north of us. I imagine Blois and Chambord took the brunt of it. Or Chaumont and Onzain. Amboise maybe. We were just on the southern edge of the real weather.

A giboulée de mars blew through yesterday, two days early.

Now I know it's springtime. That was what in France is called
« une giboulée » — a sudden downpour, an ice shower, a gust of wind, with dark skies — and giboulées don't last long. They are cold though, and if you get caught outside during one you'd better have rain gear or, in town, at least an umbrella.

The dictionary says giboulée means « Pluie soudaine, quelquefois accompagnée de vent, de grêle ou même de neige, et bientôt suivie d'une éclaircie. » Les giboulées de mars in France are the local equivalent, but colder and more violent, than North American's famous April showers.

26 February 2011

An excursion to Valençay

Yesterday we drove over to Valençay to go shopping. It was as much an excuse to get out of the house as anything else; I'm still trying to remember the last time I went out in the car. It might have been more than a week earlier.

But the other reasons to go to the supermarket in Valençay were that I wanted to go buy some Valençay AOC wine from the co-op over there and I wanted to see if the market hall on the main square in town was open for business on a Friday. Otherwise, we could have gone shopping in one of our Saint-Aignan supermarkets.

Valençay is a 30-minute drive from our house — 25 kilometers, or 15 miles. You can see from the time and distance figures that you don't go at breakneck speed to get there. You drive east through Saint-Aignan, Seigy, and Couffy along the road that parallels the Cher River on the south side (left bank). Then you turn off toward the south and drive through Lye and Villentrois, not to mention the little Forêt de Gâtine, before sliding on into Valençay.

The sun came out and we had a nice ride in the Peugeot. One nice thing is that there's no traffic around here. And there's always a nice old farmhouse, a château, or some beautiful green fields to enjoy along the way.

Valençay is a famous town for several reasons. One is of course its château. One part of the château dates back to the Renaissance (16th century). Construction started in 1540, after a much older château on the site was torn down, and right after the big château at Chambord was completed.

The west wing at Valençay was built in the 17th century and modified in the 18th, so it's in a completely different style. Valençay was owned and occupied by Napoleon's foreign minister Talleyrand in the early 19th century, and his chef was the famous Carême, who more or less invented la cuisine française.

Anyway, we didn't go to Valençay to be tourists. We've seen the château many times, and if you use search this blog and Walt's you'll find a lot of topics about and photos taken in Valençay.

The other thing Valençay is famous for is its particular goat's milk cheese. Valençay is the one that's in the shape of a pyramid with the top lopped off. It's coated in black wood ash and a little salt. The cheese itself is pure white and tasty.

One point of yesterday's trip was to see if there was any activity at the market hall on the main square on a Friday morning, and I can report that there was none. The weekly market in Valençay, which occupied the market hall and the surrounding streets, is held on Tuesday mornings.

Valençay is a little down on its luck these days. A big factory that employed a lot of the local people shut down a few years ago. The town is not exactly a beehive of activity on a Friday morning, but it's not a ghost town either. It's of course busier on Tuesday mornings, and in tourist season.

One thing we noticed was that the postal employees were on strike. There were 10 or 12 of them, in uniform, outside the post office building on a street not far from the square. They had set up a table with coffee and refreshments out on the sidewalk, and they were gathered in small groups smoking and talking amongst themselves.

Our destinations were Intermarché and the wine cooperative. Intermarché is on the north side of town, and when we got there the parking lot was far from full. That's always a good sign. We got a shopping cart and went in. We were surprised how packed full of stock the store was, and how orderly it all seemed.

Intermarché is the only supermarket in Valençay. The next closest ones would be the Champion and SuperU stores in Selles-sur-Cher, a good 10 miles north. So Intermarché has a quasi-monopoly in this area, with its population of three or four thousand souls.

As we went through the front door, there was a large, well-stocked clothing and shoe department to the right. A little farther in there was a big area stocked with books, CDs, DVDs, maps, and newspapers. The hardware, pet food, and cleaning products aisles were bursting with merchandise too. All of it was very well lit and fairly spacious, despite the copious goods for sale.

It was the same in the actual supermarket sections. Nice produce. Nice butcher and charcuterie/deli counters. Good specials on meats — I bought two fresh pork shoulder roasts, a total of three kilos, for less than nine euros. We got potatoes, lettuce, milk, a pack of pre-cut smoked pork lardons, a couple of tins of sardines (there was no cod liver to be found), a couple of avocados, six turnips, a bag of coarse sea salt, a saucisson sec, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce — among other things.

We are now stocked up for the weekend. We are also stocked up on wine. The Valençay wine producers' cooperative in on the road north of town, going toward Selles-sur-Cher. There, we had three of our plastic wine jugs filled — one with 10 liters of red, a second with 10 liters of white, and the third with 10 liters of rosé. That's the equivalent of 40 bottles, and price was about 50 euros. That's pretty reasonable, and it should hold us for a while.

The town closest to the wine co-op is called Fontguenand, just to the north. There we turned off to the left and took a little road toward the village of Meusnes (how would you pronounce that?), where I knew there was a bakery. We stopped and bought two loaves of bread, since we don't have bread delivery this week (it's winter vacation for the local baker). We got a sesame loaf and a whole wheat bread.

We were back at home by 11:15. We had taken a pan of lasagne and some little chipolata sausages out of the freezer for our lunch. All we had to do was pop all that into the oven and make a salad — plus fill a couple of wine bottles — before we could sit down to a nice meal.

25 February 2011

Gray, and then rain, but green

I don't have a lot to blog about today, so I'll talk about the weather again. We all do it. 'Tis the season.

I kind of like the weather maps that they have on the France 2 television web site. Here's the forecast. On the left, you have today's afternoon weather. On the right, it's the forecast for tomorrow morning. Rain is coming in. Mais rien de bien méchant — just showers. I put Tours and Paris on the map for reference.

Gray today, gray and damp tomorrow
(those are centigrade temperatures of course)

Meanwhile, the pond out back has been overflowing, as I've said. Again, nothing very serious, but the pond is really full. A day or two I saw a couple of toads swimming in it. It's nearly the toad breeding season. They come in from all around the vineyard and hamlet to do what they do at this time of year. Toads here are a harbinger of spring, and the last gasp of winter.

The overflowing pond by the vines

In some years there are hundreds of toads all up and down the road and in our back yard this time of year. Callie loves to chase them. They are not the most attractive animals on the planet, however, and I really don't want the dog to catch one. I hope that toads smell or taste bad to a border collie.

Our pond will soon be full of brown toads

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bay Area where we used to live, and where we still have a lot of friends, is getting the really cold weather right now. Temperatures are supposed to drop below freezing possibly right down to sea level — that's a rare event out there, except at high altitudes. It might snow this weekend in SF and in Silicon Valley, they say.

We haven't had a hard freeze in weeks and weeks
here in Saint-Aignan.

I remember that back in 1990 we had a very sharp cold snap in San Francisco. Walt and I lived in a top floor apartment on Gough Street near Sutter, and we had a skylight in the bathroom that wasn't at all airtight. It got so cold outside that December that even with the heat up full blast we couldn't get the temperature in the apartment above about 55ºF.

The worst thing was that the temperature went below freezing, and a lot of beautiful succulent plants and trees were killed. We had been out there for three or four years already, and we were used to being able to leave potted plants outside on the balcony year-round. Many froze, as did a lot of beautiful old plants in people's yards and gardens.

It's been really wet, however, and
we could use some sunshine.

Anyway, it's all what you are used to and prepared for. Temperatures just a few degrees below freezing don't seem like a big deal in most places, including Saint-Aignan, but in other places, where freezes are so few and far between, nobody is really prepared for the consequences. Oh well, it's not an earthquake at least.

24 February 2011

Fish, mostly in tins

Yesterday Walt posted about sardines — the ones in tins (tin cans, we used to call them), not fresh ones. We'll have to buy some fresh ones again soon and prepare them. That means "cleaning them," and "cleaning" is a euphemism for "gutting."

When I was growing up on the coast of North Carolina, I used to go fishing a lot. Sometimes it was with my father, and as I got older it was often with cousins and pals. We would sit on a dock down on the sound and catch spots, hogfish, perch, and other small fish that were not too bony and were delicious to eat. We didn't mind cleaning them.

The sardine fillets were nice white fish, and they were good
with the mayonnaise, potatoes, and broccoli.

Anyway, sardines were not something we ate much back then. Maybe you didn't either. But if you want to eat fish in the future, you probably ought to develop a taste for them. I just read a newspaper that said nearly all the bigger fish in the oceans — salmon, tuna, cod, grouper — will soon be gone — fished out — and only small fish like sardines and anchovies will be left.

The sardines Walt bought in tins were really good. Some came from packing plants in Brittany (France), and others came from plants in Belgium and Morocco. Some are packed in olive oil, some in tomato sauce, and others are in lemon-basil sauce or sauce piquante like Tabasco.

Here's a close-up.

In the past, I would have told you I didn't really like sardines. For one thing, I didn't like the bones. But these sardines we ate were filleted — no bones. Just nice white fish flesh, and it didn't have that fishy taste and smell you might associate with tinned sardines.

So I'm posting a couple of pictures I took of the plate at lunch. We had the Annabelle potatoes that I posted about a few days ago, and we had some steamed broccoli with the fish and potatoes. We ate the vegetables warm, not cold.

I also made a bowl of mayonnaise — that's a raw egg yolk, some Dijon mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper, whipped up with canola oil until it emulsifies and thickens. It was good with everything on the plate. If you don't already make your own mayonnaise, you should start. It's easy and it tastes a lot better than the stuff you buy in jars at the supermarket.

Another tinned food that I really like is cod liver — foie de morue. Now that might surprise you. We associate cod liver with cod liver oil, and nobody ever thought to like the taste of that stuff. But now we all know the benefits of fish oils, and the cod liver is packed in its own oil, with just a hint of salt.

Smoked cod liver from Denmark

I started eating cod liver back in the late 1970s, in Paris. It's apéritif or snack food. The tins of foie de morue that I have right now come from a company in Denmark, and the liver is smoked. I don't know if cod liver is always smoked before being packed.

Foie de morue on toast triangles — good with
a glass of chilled white wine

I eat it, and always have, according to the suggestion de préparation on the tin: "Before opening the tin, put it in the refrigerator for an hour" — actually, I keep the tins in the fridge — "Drain off the oil, which is good to eat too. Serve the cod livers on toasted bread slices, seasoned with pepper and lemon juice."

Here's the nutrition information, in many languages.

The livers can be mashed a spread on toast, in other words. Then grind on some pepper and sprinkle on a couple of drops of lemon juice. Delicious. the ingredients listed on the tin are "Cod liver it its own oil (99%), salt."

We don't eat a lot of fish these days, precisely because there is so much talk of so many species at risk of being completely fished out. Maybe cod liver isn't a product of a sustainable industry — I don't know. Also, fish is so expensive that it is tempting just to find other foods to enjoy.

Here's the pollock, dredged in cornmeal and fried in canola oil.
It was really good and it's not something we eat often.

But we did have fish yesterday. It was some frozen lieu jaune — pollock or pollack, I think that is, Pollachius pollachius — that I bought at the Paris Store in Blois. We made fish and chips with the last of it. And no, we're not English. It was North Carolina-style, as far as I'm concerned — breaded with cornmeal.

23 February 2011

Are you still workin’ on that?

This is almost embarrassing. But it's the reality. We still haven't finished our remodeling work.

Oh, the whole upstairs is done, except for the light fixture over the "new" staircase. The walls are all painted, the floor and stairs are all varnished. It's all furnished, and we are living up here. It's where my computer is, and where I am right now. We still haven't hung things on the walls yet, but we'll get that done before summer.

This week I stripped the old wall paper
off these walls and part of the ceiling.

The part that isn't done is the stairwell, landing, and hallway downstairs. It's that old wallpaper. After Walt injured his neck last fall while he was painting the upstairs ceiling — he had to wear a special collar to immobilize his head and neck for about a month — and then I badly sprained my ankle a few weeks later, the work ground to a halt.

I'm just getting back to it this week. It's not fun, but fortunately there's not a lot left to do. It's the wallpaper on the ceiling that is the biggest problem. The walls are easy — I spritz soapy water onto the ugly old wallpaper, wait a couple of minutes, and then scrape the paper off with a wide putty knife.

The old wallpaper you can see in this photo
is all that's left now.

The paper fairly falls off the wall at that point. A lot of it comes off in big wide strips. I did a whole section of wall a couple of days ago. It only took me a couple of hours.

The ceiling is a different story. First, it's hard to spray it, because spray bottles like to be held upright. Otherwise, they don't work the way you want them to work. And then the liquid you spray on the ceiling drips down on your head and clothes, and into your eyes if you're not careful. And remember, you're balanced precariously on a stepladder.

Stripping wallpaper off the ceiling is not a lot of fun.

Well, it's nearly done. I might even finish the job this morning. You can see from the pictures that I don't have a lot left to do. It's only taken us about eight years to get rid of all that tired old paper. Painting the walls will be easy, once they are prepped.

22 February 2011

English-style cooking in French cuisine

In America and in France, boiled dinners have long been classics of home cooking.

In America, we have pot roast (of beef), corned beef and cabbage, or New England boiled dinner, for example. In coastal North Carolina and elsewhere, we used to love boiled shrimp, and Virginia has made a specialty out of boiled peanuts.

In France, there's la poule au pot (boiled chicken with vegetables), le pot au feu (boiled beef with vegetables), la blanquette de veau (boiled veal served in a cream sauce), and la potée (boiled pork and sausages with vegetables) in different styles from several regions.

Now I don't know much about English cooking, never having spent more than a month in England altogether in several separate trips, but in France boiling foods — meats or vegetables — is called cooking them "in the English manner" — « la cuisson à l'anglaise ». I don't know where the term comes from. Two English friends have told me that they don't cook meats, at least, in such a way in England. They roast them — I'm talking about leg of lamb, for example.

I've looked at recipes in the Larousse Gastronomique, Escoffier's Guide Culinaire (I have an American edition, in English), and several other cookbooks, including Ginette Mathiot's Je Sais Cuisiner. All these have, for example, a recipe for Gigot à l'anglaise — boiled, or poached, leg of lamb (or mutton).

Ginette Mathiot's recipe for English-style poached leg of lamb

The difference between gigot à l'anglaise and boiled dinners like the ones I mentioned above is that a leg of lamb cooked "English-style" is not really boiled but, but carefully poached. It's not cooked until it's well done, but finished and served rare — « saignant » in French, meaning that the meat still has blood, a.k.a meat juices, in it when you cut into it.

The Larousse quotes the great 19th-century French chef Carême as saying: « Ce que les Anglais apprécient le plus, c'est que le jus sorte du gigot lorsqu'ils portent le couteau dedans. » —"What the English like the most is for the lamb to be juicy when they cut into it."

Here's a translation of the recipe for Gigot à l'anglaise from the book titled Recettes d'une grand'mère, by a woman named Renée de Grossouvre (1988). It's not very different from the ones in the Larousse Gastronomique or Escoffier's cookbook.
Gigot à l'anglaise
Leg of lamb poached English-style

For those who love rare meat, this is an excellent way to cook lamb.

Choose a leg of young mutton, with very white fat, and round and short in shape (elongated legs are not as good). Insert three slivers of garlic into the shank end. Put some water on to boil and salt it generously with coarse sea salt. Put in enough water so that the leg of lamb will be completely submerged.

With some fine, tightly woven muslin, wrap the leg and sew it up in the cloth, pulling it tight. Then plunge it into the pot of water, which should be at a rolling boil, keeping the pot on high heat until the water comes back to the boil after being cooled down by the roast. You of course must know the exact weight of the leg and look at the time right when you put the lamb in, so that you can let it cook for 15 minutes per pound and no longer.

This recipe is among the best, and lamb cooked this way is very nutritious.
The author says to prepare cream sauce with capers, to be served burning hot at the table with the lamb. Carve the roast on a platter, not on a board, so that you can collect all the blood (which has become a concentrated jus) that comes out of the meat as you slice it. Place the slices of lamb on a warm platter and spoon the meat juices over all, and serve the hot caper sauce on the side.

The translation of Escoffier's book into American English calls the dish "boiled leg of mutton English-style," but as I said, it is really just poached. His recipe calls for cooking carrots, onions, garlic cloves, and herbs in the pot with the leg of lamb. And he says to serve the "boiled" lamb with a purée of, for example, turnips, white beans, celery root, or potatoes, cooked separately or in the lamb broth.

A similar way of boiling or poaching beef — fine, tender cuts like filet de bœuf, not stew beef as in the homey pot au feu — is called « bœuf à la ficelle » — beef on a string. The roast is suspended in boiling water, hanging by a string during the cooking process. It is normally served rare or medium rare. Our friend Martine has written about that way of preparing beef on her blog, Wishing I Were in France. Here's a link to her post.

Mathiot's recipe for potatoes cooked and served English-style

When vegetables are cooked in boiling water — potatoes or green beans, for example — they are also called « à l'anglaise », and the recipe almost always says to serve the vegetables with butter, melted or not, that is brought to the table separately. The vegetables, unlike the lamb, are boiled until they are well done — or whatever degree of cooking that means for specific vegetables and individual tastes.

The Larousse Gastronomique says of « pommes de terre à l'anglaise » that you should peel the potatoes as neatly as possible and cook them in salted boiling water, or steam them. "In England," it says, however, "these potatoes are cooked in unsalted water." The Larousse also describes « haricots verts à l'anglaise » as green beans cooked in salted water, drained, dried in a towel, and then served with butter melted over the warm beans at the last minute.

And her recipe for green beans cooked and served « à l'anglaise »

I think the French cooks and chefs who give these recipes admire the simplicity of what they call « la cuisson à l'anglaise », which calls for very fresh vegetables and meats cooked carefully and served with fresh butter or simple sauces. It's an elegant way of preparing and serving food.

But it may also have led to the French stereotype according to which English food is usually boiled to death and overly bland. I never found it to be that way when I went to England.

I do plan to cook a gigot à l'anglaise the next time I buy a leg of lamb.

21 February 2011

Potatoes in a jiffy

Last week I went over to the Ed discount grocery store in Saint-Aignan to pick up a few things, and I came back with a sack of potatoes. They were on sale at half the regular price, and they looked like nice spuds.

For these 2.2 lbs. of potatoes, cook them right in the bag
in the microwave oven. Serves 3 or 4.

I grabbed a bag and put it in the cart, without thinking about it too much — except to wonder if the price posted above the bin, 1.79 €, was the sale price, or if the sale price would be 50% of that. They were 89 cents (eurocents, of course) for the kilogram.

Microwave cooking instructions, in many languages.

When I got home, I examined the bag. The instructions say to cook the potatoes right in the cellophane package. "Stand the bag up in the microwave oven," it says, " without opening or piercing it. Cook at 750W for 15 minutes."

And don't peel them — savor them with the skin on.

That's a new one on me. The bag also says to eat the potatoes with their skins left on. I don't know a lot of French people who do that. I remember the members of a family I used to visit often sitting around the dinner table carefully peeling little potatoes that were brought out, cooked, with the skins still on. They thought it was strange that I ate them without peeling them.

They're nice potatoes of a variety called Annabelle.
And yes, that's an egg. I'm going to make a bowl of
mayonnaise to eat with the potatoes.

I obviously decided not to cook the potatoes in the bag. First of all, my microwave oven doesn't have a 750W setting — it has 900W, 600W, 440W, and 100W. Second of all, I wanted to wash them before cooking them. But we will eat them skins and all.

20 February 2011

Roast leg of NZ lamb

I didn't really end up cooking the New Zealand leg of lamb the way I thought I would. My initial idea was to cook it as I would cook an expensive French leg of lamb — basically plain, with maybe a light sprinkling of dried thyme, salt, and black pepper over it, and several cloves of garlic in the roasting pan to give it some of their flavor.

Instead, in looking around at all kinds of recipes and methods for cooking leg of lamb, I found a couple of recipes for marinades that sounded good. I had all the ingredients on hand, and I also decided that giving the lamb some smokiness would be good. There was plenty of smoked paprika in the spice cabinet, and some liquid smoke too, so I put those in the marinade with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and mustard, among other ingredients.

The roasted 4 lb. gigot d'agneau

We decided to cook the lamb at a high temperature, at least to start. And to keep the juices and stray marinade from burning in the bottom of the roasting pan, we poured in a cup or so of water at the beginning and kept adding a little water as the lamb cooked. We ended up with a nice sauce.

Score the meat pretty deeply so that the marinade can soak in.

Walt kept an eye on the lamb, turning the oven temperature down as it cooked so that it wouldn't burn on top. And toward the end, he covered it with a sheet of foil. When the internal temperature of the thickest piece of meat reached 135ºF, or about 60ºC — which was after about an hour of cooking — we turned off the oven, opened the door slightly, and just let the roast sit there under its foil for about half an hour, to rest.

A simple but satisfying meal, with bread and wine of course

Resting lets the heat distribute itself inside the meat and even out the cooking, so that the roast is not burned on the outside and raw on the inside . Here's the recipe for the marinade and a description of the cooking method:

Marinated, roasted leg of lamb

For the marinade:
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, crushed or pressed into puree
  • 1 Tbsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 Tbsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. liquid smoke, if you have it
  • salt and pepper, generously
Mix all the marinade ingredients together well.

Trim off the roast as much fat and silver skin as you want.
Score the meat with a sharp knife so that marinade can penetrate.

Spoon on the marinade.

Let the roast marinate in the fridge for an hour or two,
or cook it immediately on a rack in a 450ºF/230ºC oven.
Pour a little water and/or white wine in the bottom of the pan
to keep it from burning. Cook for 15 minutes per pound of meat,
until the internal temperature of the meat reaches at least
125ºF/52ºC for rare, or at most 140ºF/60ºC for medium.

Fairly rare — a little redder than rosé, I think

Then let the roast rest for 20 to 30 minutes so that the
residual heat will penetrate intto the center of the meat,
making it evenly done. The temperature
inside the meat will continue to rise as it rests.
(Medium rare is called rosé in French.)

Store-brand beans — excellent

All we ate for lunch was some slices of roast lamb and a serving of the pale green French flageolet beans. To cook the beans, I followed the instructions on the can: heat them up slowly in their liquid, either in a saucepan or in the microwave oven. Then drain them and add a lump of butter and some seasonings.

Follow the directions (more or less)

Well, I didn't do exactly that. I chopped up two cloves of garlic and cooked it on low temperature in the microwave in butter for 10 minutes. It didn't color at all, but it cooked and flavored the butter. Then, when the beans were heated up, I drained them and put them in the bowl with the garlic and butter and tossed them around with some salt and pepper. They were delicious.

Nice garlicky beans

One of the ways I had considered cooking the leg of lamb was what the French cookbooks call « à l'anglaise » — English style — which means boiling it in a large kettle of water with some aromatic vegetables. You can cook it that way until it's just rare, medium rare, or well done, just as you can cook it in the oven.

I think I'll try that next time, since I've never cooked lamb that way before. For the time being, we have lots of leftovers.

19 February 2011

Cabin fever

Okay, I'll chalk it up to cabin fever. I don't really want to live in a city again. Too cramped, too polluted, too noisy, too expensive. Problem is, the weather forecast here in Saint-Aignan is for rain for the next week. We haven't had a lot of really wet weather recently, but it seems we are entering a rainy period.

Rain in the gauge in the back yard

What to do? Well, we have to go out with the dog anyway, so we'll get wet. At least it's not cold at all. It's sort of raining this morning — it's more mist than real rain. The real rain is supposed to arrive Monday. If the weather people know what they are talking about. We can't complain. February has been pretty nice up to now.

The pond out back is really full. It overflows now
whenever the weather is rainy.

Cooking good food is the best antidote. Today, leg of lamb with French flageolet beans. That's what people in France eat, traditionally, with leg of lamb, called gigot d'agneau. Flageolets are immature white beans that are harvested when they are still pale green in color. They were first cultivated in the late 1800s by a farmer in the Paris region.

Rain puddles in the vineyard

It's funny, because a flageolet in French is also a specific kind of musical instrument. The dictionary says it's a “small flutelike instrument with a cylindrical mouthpiece, four finger holes, and two thumbholes.” It toots. Enough said, no?

The leg of lamb I'm cooking comes from New Zealand. We buy New Zealand, Australian, and Patagonian gigots fairly frequently, but usually we cook them in spicy Moroccan-style tagines, "barbecued" with a spicy vinegar sauce, or as Irish-style stew with vegetables and herbs.

Heard it through the grapevine

Today, I'm just going to roast the leg of lamb, which weighs 1.825 kg, or about 4 lbs. From what I've read, it should take just an hour to cook in a hot oven, and then it will need some resting time so that it cooks through evenly but remains approximately medium rare.

If we don't like it cooked that way, we can always re-cook the leftovers in some other form, such as stew or hash. Hachis parmentier, for example — shepherd's pie. What ever we end up doing, we'll be eating lamb for the next few days, prepared one way or another. Poor us, right.

Vines in February

We've been eating a lot of chicken and turkey recently. This will be a good change. One butcher here in Saint-Aignan told me that his customers don't buy much New Zealand lamb. They much prefer French lamb, whether from Normandy or the Limousin region.

We usually buy French lamb when we want a roasted leg, but it's really expensive — 30 to 40 euros for a leg, compared to 10 euros ($14.00 U.S.) for a 4 lb. roast. French lamb is supposed to be more mildly flavored. Once friends in Normandy served roast leg of lamb for lunch. It came to the table all sliced. The meat was so white and mild, though full of flavor, that I thought it was veal.

New Zealand lamb is sold as a “three-quarter leg” — in French,
a gigot raccourci, or “shortened” leg.
The hip bone and saddle
have been removed, so just the thigh (la cuisse) is left.

Maybe going away for a few days will be a good change for me. I'll be in North Carolina for two weeks in March. I think the weather there will be springlike (with any luck). I saw on the web that the high temperature in the Raleigh-Durham area yesterday was 78ºF — that would be a hot summer day in Saint-Aignan (just over 25ºC). And no, North Carolina is not in the southern hemisphere!

18 February 2011

Stay put? Or move on?

Yesterday I read a blog that I've been keeping up with for several years. The woman who writes it and posts photos is an American who is married to a Frenchman. They met in the U.S. but soon moved to France. They're about my age — she has grandchildren.

They were living for a while in a small apartment in Paris, and spending most of their time there. They fixed the apartment up and sold it last year when they found a new, larger apartment that had just gone off the market. They moved, but not very far. They've been having some work done in the new apartment — updating a bathroom — and it has been taking a lot longer than they were led to believe the renovation project would take.

But these people also have a house in Provence. They've spent quite a bit of time down there over the past few years, and they've also had a lot of work done on the house and in the yard there. There's a pool, a pool house, a garden — everything you might dream of.

Lots of fog this morning

And then suddenly, a couple of days ago, in her Valentine's Day post, the American blog author announced that she and her husband had sold the house in Provence. She said she loved the house itself, but the yard work was a lot of trouble. Pests, including thousands of snails, became the bane of her existence as a gardener.

All this made me think about our options here. Now, I know I couldn't live in Provence. There are too many cypress trees down there, and I'm allergic to the pollen. Tests showed me that I'm also allergic to olive tree pollen. So Provence is out of the question. Besides, everything down there is pretty expensive, I think. And it kind of shuts down in the winter, when the tourists aren't there.

Actually, I wouldn't want to leave this place to move to another house out in the country. But, on some days, it feels like it would be fun to live in a city again. Or a town, at least. Tours, Blois, or Bourges, just to name the closest cities, all have their attractions. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to step out the front door and have restaurants, cafés, and shops within easy walking distance?

I don't know if I'd be able to put up with cramped quarters, city noise, and the lack of outdoor space. But over the past 40 years, I've lived in Paris (at Les Halles), Washington DC (on Capitol Hill), and San Francisco (near Japantown), quite happily. I also lived in the Paris suburbs for a while, and in the middle of the suburbia that is Silicon Valley. I didn't like those so much.

The first time I've ever in my life lived in the country has been here in Saint-Aignan. I grew up in a small town, in a neighborhood close to downtown. Now, I've lived in this house near Saint-Aignan longer than I've ever lived in any other house in my life, with the exception of the house I grew up in. But I left there 45 years ago!

When you hear about people suddenly selling their house in the country — and not just any country, but greatly romanticized Provence, with its warm (hot) weather and deep blue skies — it makes you wonder. We could put our house on the market and look for an apartment or a townhouse in a city or big town. Or in a village with shops and a market.

It's time for me to go out for the morning walk with the dog. What would walking the dog involve if we lived in a town or city? Well, yesterday, I went to Super U to get some groceries. There are several apartment complexes right next to the supermarket parking lot. I saw a man walking a little dog on a leash around the side and back of the supermarket, right next to the recycling dumpsters, and behind and around parked cars. No thanks...

Callie out in the vineyard

Spring is coming, as I keep saying, and I find myself making lists in my head of the advantages of living here in the country outside Saint-Aignan. It's nice having a big yard, with plenty of room for a vegetable garden, for example. Of course, gardening is hard work, and your success is never guaranteed. You're at the mercy of the weather, pests, and diseases.

Another advantage is the vineyard, where we can go for long walks with the dog. There's no need for a leash; there are hardly ever any cars out there, even on the tourist road. Callie stays close and isn't at all prone to disappearing. Even when she chases a deer or a hare into the woods, she comes right back. And there's almost never anybody out there except the few people who work the vines, pruning them and maintaining the posts and wires that support them. They all know us, and are friendly with us and the dog.

The route touristique through the Touraine vineyards

Okay, we have to drive to go anywhere else. And the car is now over 10 years old. But there are two large supermarkets and three smaller grocery stores within three or four miles of the house. There are also several open-air markets nearby, so there is no shortage of good, fresh, and inexpensive food. We get fresh bread delivered to our front door four days a week. We have easy access to good, inexpensive wine, straight from local growers and cooperatives. We live at the end of what is a dead-end road — at least the paved part — so there is almost no traffic or noise.

Both of us being homebodies puts us at risk of becoming hermits, however. Some might say we already have become reclusive. We kind of hole up, since we have satellite TV, computers, high-speed Internet access, a chest freezer, and a well-stocked pantry. We see our neighbors some, but not really all that often, except to wave at them once in a while when they drive by. Several of the houses around us are unoccupied for much of the year.

There's no conclusion to this post. I'm just daydreaming, letting my mind wander. Now it's time to go start making lunch.