31 December 2012

New Belgian neighbors

This weekend we enjoyed a get-together with a Belgian couple who we had the pleasure of meeting for the first time in 2010. That year, they came to the Loire Valley for a vacation with our blogger friend Martine "Ladybird." JL and B are from Brussels and are French-speaking. They've bought a holiday home in a neighboring village, not far from Saint-Aignan.

You know how they used to say the moon was made out of green cheese?

JL and B said they've been making monthly trips from Brussels to Saint-Aignan for a while now, staying just a few days each time. Martine had told us last summer that they'd bought a house here. They're gradually bringing down furniture and other furnishings. The house is in the middle of a  village, but with a big back yard where they can have a vegetable garden one day.

This was last Friday at about 8:30 a.m. Callie was glad to be outside —
she loves to bark at the morning moon.

The way they got in touch was by coming over and ringing our front bell on Saturday. We were busy in the kitchen. I looked out the window and was two people I didn't recognize standing outside the gate. It's unusual to have two people — a man and a woman — arrive unannounced like that. Usually when somebody you don't know comes to the gate it's a contractor of some kind selling services like tree-trimming or painting or window replacement.

 Sunrise behind poplars last Friday morning

My first thought, when I saw JL and B — I didn't immediately recognize them — was that they too must be selling something. I didn't bother to go downstairs — I just went out on the front deck, from where I could speak to them down below. It dawned on me that they might be Jehovah's Witnesses, because we've had couples ring the bell in the past and want to talk to us about religion. I was too busy for that kind of discussion.

Looking across the vines toward our hamlet at sunrise

JL asked in French if we remembered them, and I was sort of confused. Then he said the magic word — Martine — and I knew immediately who they were. I remembered their names. We talked for just a minute. I told them we were busy in the kitchen. They said they didn't want to bother us but asked if we could come over the next day to see their house and share a glass of sparkling wine.

 Sunrise doesn't come very early in this season

So that's what we did yesterday at noon. I'm glad JL and B got in touch. They'll be good neighbors (about 5 miles down the road). We spent a couple of hours looking around their French house and getting better acquainted. Thanks, Martine...

30 December 2012

Escargots à la bourguignonne

We didn't make these. We just bought them off the drive-up butcher truck. All we had to do was figure out a way to re-heat them. We did, and they were delicious.

The green stuff in each shell is, of course, "snail butter" — beurre à la bourguignonne or beurre pour escargots dits à la bourguignonne is what the Larousse Gastronomique calls it. It's a beurre composé made with chopped parsley and garlic, and again according to the LG, a good bit of diced shallot.

Snails fattened, purged, cooked, and stuffed back into their shells
with plenty of parsley-garlic butter

We in the English-speaking world smile slyly or even chuckle about crazy French people who eat... ewwwh!... snails. But the LG says it was the ancient Romans who figured out how to fatten and prepare them to make them edible. Blame (or credit) goes to a man named Fluvius Lupinus. Of course, snails were also a part of the diet of prehistoric peoples.

Snails gathered in the wild have to be purged and fattened so that they are safe to eat. That's because the snails might have eaten plants that are toxic to the human digestive system, and they can also have sand and grit in their digestive tract. So they spend two or three days in a controlled environment, first fasting and then feasting on aromatic herbs, flour, bread crumbs, and/or corn meal, to clean out their systems. That diet also fattens them up.

Snails, beautiful snails (at least the shells are beautiful)

Snail meat is not very nourishing, according to the LG, but it contains a lot of vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium, along with other minerals. It's the "vineyard snail" — l'escargot des vignes — that is considered the best. It's also called l'escargot de Bourgogne. I think that's what we bought, not the smaller, darker-shelled snail called le petit gris, which is also delectable.

Here they are re-heated and ready to eat.

We don't have the special snail dishes you need to hold the snails upright as they cook in the oven — you don't want all the parsley-garlic butter to run out of the shells — so we improvised. We put a layer of rice in a dish and pressed the shells down into it. It worked just fine. Then we just heated the snails up in the oven for 15 minutes. As I said, they were delicious. It's the butter, of course. The snails themselves don't have much flavor but their texture is good.

Our village actually has a snail festival every summer. Tons of snails are consumed. I did a post about snails I found in our garden a few years ago. I called them petits-gris, and I think that's what they are around here. There's a link in that post to a post about the snail festival in our village.

29 December 2012

Winter photos

It's hard to take photos here in wintertime. There just isn't enough light. I guess if I went out at noontime on a rare bright day — we've had nearly 100 mm or 4 inches of rain this month — I'd do better, but at noontime I'm too busy in the kitchen (or in the dining room).

Here's an indoor photo. At 6 a.m. today I was busy making coffee
and getting the cat fed when I noticed that the light was nice.

A full moon was setting over the vineyard.

A couple of days ago we had a few moments of sunshine, and a rainbow.

Fences around the vineyard help keep the deer out and the donkeys in.

Here's an afternoon moon over the hamlet and vineyard — my latest banner photo.

28 December 2012

SuperU's fine print

Yesterday I had to go out to the pharmacy, so I drove up to SuperU, which was advertising a special price on a 6-bottle case of champagne for 60 € —20 € off. It was too good to pass up. The store was a zoo (sometimes we call it SuperZoo), as it can be on the first day of a sale during the holidays. I spent 10 minutes looking in the wine section for the half-case of champagne I wanted to buy, but couldn't find any anywhere.

The latest SuperU advertising flyer features macarons and champagne on the cover

I went and stood at the service desk (l'accueil) for a while, and finally a young woman came to help me. She ended up just brushing me off, really: "Look on the end caps (les bouts de rayons) and you'll find it." Then she turned away. I had already looked everywhere, but I went back and looked some more.

No luck, except that another store employee happened by, pushing a cartload of cardboard boxes. I stopped her, carefully stared into her eyes and said Bonjour to get on her good side (you have to do that) and asked her for assistance. She looked around for a while, but she couldn't find the advertised champagne either. Single bottles of the same champagne were on the shelves for about 17 € per bottle.

Finally, the second employee went to find a third one. It was a young man this time. I explained the situation to him. "Oh, wait here," he said, "I haven't yet had time to bring that champagne out to the floor. I'll go see if I can find some." It didn't take him very long. He was all smiles, and I made sure I was smiling too, as I thanked him.

Walt just read this really fine print on the SuperU advertising flyer that we received this week:
« Si un article venait à manquer, veuillez le commander à notre point accueil, ce produit ou un produit similaire vous sera fourni dans les meilleurs délais au prix de l'actuelle publicité (sous réserve de disponibilité chez le fournisseur). Offres valables pendant les dates indiquées dans ce document sous réserve d'erreur d'impression. Chaque magasin se réserve la possibilité de ne pas faire droit à la demande d'un client qui ne correspondrait pas aux besoins normaux d'un consommateur. »

“If an item happens to be unavailable, please place an order for it at our customer service desk [and] the item or a similar item will be furnished as soon as possible at the price announced in the current advertising flyer (unless it is not available from the supplier). Special offers are valid for the dates indicated in this document except if there has been a printing error. Each store reserves the right to refuse to honor the requests of a customer that are not deemed to correspond to the normal needs of a consumer.”
Quails or a chicken for the New Year's holiday...

So we're right back where we started from, really. You'd have to be really determined to get the product at the advertised price before you'd be willing to go stand in line at the customer service desk and place an order for it. At least I would. And you have to know that the law requires the store to accommodate you. There's a good chance you'd be told that item was no longer available from the supplier.

At Grand Frais in Vierzon, there were no turkeys available at the low advertised price, but there were plenty available at twice that price. That's enough to make you suspicious that the advertising was a bait-and-switch trap. It probably wasn't, but I wasn't about to make a second trip to Vierzon to get a turkey, anyway. It's just too far.

...or duck — fresh or cooked into confit, your choice

Over at the Intermarché supermarket across the river in Noyers, I long ago gave up hope of ever actually finding the advertised specials available at the meat counter. So many times I tried, only to be told to come back later in the week because they might get a new supply. Might... Nobody ever volunteered the information that I could place an order and get the advertised price for the same or a similar item.

I've always had much better luck at SuperU in Saint-Aignan. Yesterday at SuperU they had chapons (which are capons — fattened chickens — in English) the size of a turkey on special at about the same price advertised by Grand Frais for those dindes blanches, so I bought one of those. With that and the champagne, I'm happy! We'll have a capon sometime later this winter, and the champagne will get us through special occasions over the next 12 months.

27 December 2012

It happened again

Yesterday we decided to drive over to the big town of Vierzon (pop. 27,500), about 75 km east of Saint-Aignan on the Cher River. It takes an hour, mostly by (toll = 5€) autoroute, to get there. One point of the trip was to take the car out at high speed (130 kph) in low gears (4th) to continue burning the carbon out of the engine in preparation for a new contrôle technique in January.

Another point was to do some shopping at the Grand Frais produce and grocery store that's over there. We were especially looking for vegetables, and we got what we wanted: panais (parsnips), topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes), rutabagas, choux de Bruxelles, céleri-branches (as opposed to céleri-rave), gombos (okra), pommes de terre, and more. Grand Frais is a good store that offers a wide selection at good prices. A lot of the fruits and vegetables are imported, I'm sure (many come from the tropics), but so be it.

A sampling of the vegetables we found at Grand Frais in Vierzon. For those of you who live in the 37
(Indre-et-Loire), I'll note that there are no Grand Frais grocery stores in that département (or in the 86).

Preparing for the trip, we looked up Grand Frais on the internet to make sure that the Vierzon store would be open on December 26. And when we did, we noticed that the store was offering a promotional price on what they called dindes blanches ("white" turkeys, which I think means that they are not free-range birds) at 5.49 €/kg. Walt had been saying that this week he hoped to find a turkey we could put in the freezer to have in January or February.

So when we got to the store — which is sort of like a Trader Joe's in that it carries a full line of produce and groceries, including meat and dairy, but no non-food items — we went to the butcher counter and looked at the turkeys on offer. They were expensive (40 to 60 € apiece) and we didn't see any at the advertised special price. I asked the people behind the counter.

Today's cooking project: jarret de porc frais (fresh, unsmoked hamhock) poached with
aromatic vegetables, later to be browned in the oven with roasted root vegetables

One employee said she didn't know anything about it, and she asked the man working with her, who was busy cutting meat. He said they didn't have any more of the less expensive turkeys. "In fact, that promotion ran out the week before Christmas," he said. "It's too late." I told him that on the store's web site, it said clearly that the turkeys were on special offer until the end of December. Oh no, he said; vous vous trompez (you're wrong).

Then the woman working with him pointed to a huge poster on the wall behind the meat counter. Dindes blanches, offre spéciale, 5,49 €/kg. Offre valable jusqu'au 31 décembre. So there it was. "On that's an error, obviously," the man said. "We sold all those turkeys a long time ago."

A screen capture from the Grand Frais web site

I don't know about you, but I find that very frustrating. It's false advertising, and there is no offer of a rain check (though we wouldn't drive all the way back over there later just to get a turkey at that price). It happens to me more frequently than I want to dwell on that stores around here don't have the products they advertise at the published prices. It doesn't faze the employees to tell you they are désolés but there's nothing they can do about it.

By the way, the car ran great at 80 mph (the speed limit on the autoroute) in 4th gear at between 3000 and 3500 RPMs, for nearly an hour. I hope the high revs and the fuel additive are doing their job. I'm having a lot of fun driving like a racecar driver instead of like somebody's vieux grand-père.

26 December 2012

Stuffing and roasting the Touraine chicken

Even at 30 euros, the géline de Touraine we bought for Christmas dinner was worth the price. The géline really is a high-quality, extraordinary bird. I have to say I've never cooked or even tasted the more famous poulet de Bresse, which is raised in the Bresse province north of Lyon, so I can't make that comparison. The Bresse chicken is reputedly the finest fowl in France. One day I'll get one (but I don't know if you can around here — might have to go there).

The oven-roasted farm-raised géline de Touraine chicken

Meanwhile, I don't know how any other chicken could be better than the géline. What I always try to think about when I splurge on special ingredients for a special meal is how much that meal would cost the two of us if we ordered it in a restaurant. You can't be frugal with ingredients all the time, even if you live on a limited income. Il faut se faire plaisir de temps en temps.

The géline, squash, and stuffing roasting in the oven
Anyway, I'll finish up the story of 2012's Christmas dinner. We made chestnut stuffing for the Touraine chicken, and we actually filled the bird with it for once instead of cooking all the stuffing in a separate pan. I posted the ingredients yesterday, and I just went back and updated that list to reflect what I actually put in the stuffing mixture. It was pretty much what I wrote yesterday, but I added cream to it when I realized the recipe didn't include melted butter and chicken broth for richness and moisture. The cream was a good addition.

The géline came with giblets, so I put the chicken liver in the mixture too. The first step in making the stuffing is to sauté the chopped onion, lardons, garlic, and mushrooms. When they're done (but not overcooked), take the pan off the heat and add the breadcrumbs, spices, and sage leaves. Stir all together and then add the chestnuts, some of which you've left whole and others of which you've roughly chopped.

The stuffing mixture before the cream and eggs went in

Here are the ingredients for the chestnut stuffing in English:
a scant half-pound of diced bacon or ham
10 or 12 small button mushrooms
1 onion finely diced
2 garlic cloves, sliced or crushed
½ cup bread crumbs
two sprigs fresh sage leaves, chopped (or a teaspoon of dried sage)
salt and pepper
1 pinch ground cloves (or allspice)
1 pinch ground nutmeg (or a good grating)
1 raw chicken liver, cut into small pieces
1 jar or tin of peeled chestnuts (one pound)
½ to ¾ cup heavy cream or crème fraîche
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Finally, when the mixture is fairly cool, add the two eggs and the cream (between a half and three-quarters of a cup, just enough to moisten the stuffing). Then you can stuff the chicken. Cook the rest of the stuffing in a loaf pan the way you would cook a pound cake (no need to butter or flour the pan). You could make the same stuffing mixture by substituting cubed bread for the chestnuts.

This hollowed-out winter squash, which we grew in last summer's garden, was spectacular.
We planted seeds we saved from a patidou squash purchased at the supermarket last year.

To prepare the stuffed géline for roasting, I just brushed it all over with olive oil and then salted and peppered it well. I roasted it on a rack in a pan with some liquid (water + white wine) in the bottom. I added more water as the liquid evaporated. Putting half an inch of liquid in the bottom of the pan keeps the chicken juices and fat drippings from burning.

I started the chicken roasting at a fairly low temperature (160ºC / (325ºF). After about 45 minutes, I turned it up to 190ºC / 375ºF. That's the opposite of what I usually do, and it was an experiment that worked. I wanted the chicken (and the stuffing inside) to cook through without over-browning the bird's skin, and I wanted to give the (significant) layer of fat under the skin on the breast and legs time to "render" or melt and "nourish" the meat

Carving the géline de Touraine
The total cooking time for the bird (4 lbs.) was about 90 minutes. I had planned to turn the heat up even higher to brown the chicken at the end, but I didn't need to. I basted the bird with the pan juices several times during the cooking. When the chicken was done, I turned off the oven and set the door ajar to let the bird rest for another 20 to 30 minutes.

The loaf pan of stuffing cooked in about 40 minutes' time in the oven with the chicken. We also roasted a winter squash in the oven during that same time, and we made some green beans to complete the meal. I didn't make gravy but just served some of the chicken drippings from the roasting pan with the beans, chicken, stuffing, and mashed squash. It was pretty simple (the most complicated part being the stuffing) and simply delicious.

25 December 2012

Ho ho ho

Christmas morning. Windy and rainy outside. I'll get my walk with the dog anyway; she doesn't really care unless rain is absolutely pouring down. They say it will be rainy and blustery outside all day. But it's not cold.

Un coq de la race « géline de Touraine »
A géline de Touraine rooster
Thanks to www.gelinedetouraine.fr for use of the photo

We haven't cooked Christmas dinner yet, so I can't show pictures of that. I'll just show you the main ingredients. The "undressed" géline (if you know what I mean) weighed about 2 kg, which is 4½ lbs., and cost 30 euros. That would be 6.67 euros, or nearly $9 U.S., per pound.

You pay for the undressed bird — head, feet, feathers, and all — and then the butcher "dresses" it (il prépare la volaille), so what you get weighs less. This one weighs just under 3¾ lbs. as pictured. I haven't yet looked inside to see if we got any giblets (abats in French).

The chestnuts for the stuffing, and the bird we will stuff them into

Chestnuts are complicated in French, linguistically. They're called châtaignes [shah-TEH-nyuh], botanically, and the tree is the châtaignier [shah-teh-NYAY]. There's another tree called a maronnier [mah-ruh-NYAY] that we call a horse chestnut or buckeye tree, and its fruit is the marron [mah-RÕ] — with the French R and the nasal O vowel — which is not edible for humans.

But in cooking terms, châtaignes are commonly called marrons, so you get sweet treats like crème de marrons and marrons glacés, which are really châtaignes. The tin labeled « Marrons Entiers » actually and technically contains châtaignes. Got that? I'm not sure I have. As CHM says, the simplicity of the French language is stunning to behold.

Here's the stuffing recipe I'm going to (more or less) follow:
200 g de lardons fumés
1 oignon
2 gousses d'ail
une poignée de chapelure
deux brins de feuilles de sauge
sel et poivre
une pincée de clou de girofle moulu
une pincée de noix muscade
10 ou 12 petits champignons de Paris
le foie de la volaille
1 bocal (ou boîte) de châtaignes (500 g)
150 cl de crème fraîche
2 œufs
Got that?

24 December 2012

Notre géline de Noël

Here comes our 10th Christmas in Saint-Aignan. One year, we poached and roasted a duck for our Christmas dinner. Another year it was a farm-raised turkey that we got from a butcher shop in town, and it was the best turkey ever. Another year we poached and roasted a goose. And so on.

This year, we've order a special Touraine chicken called a « géline » or a « Dame Noire ». It's an old breed of black-feathered chickens that nearly died out after World War II but was successfully revived. Here's a translation/adaptation of the history of the bird called the géline de Touraine that I found on a web site:
The term géline comes from gallina, which means "hen" in Latin.

In the 15th century, there was a feudal tax called the gélinase or gélinage, known also as the "géline custom." According to a 1461 document written by Baudet Berthelot, advisor to the king, the custom (or duty) that a landowner had to pay was 15 coins for a goose, 10 for a capon, and 8 for a géline or hen.

The géline de Touraine is the only breed of chicken known officially as a géline.

Books published in the second half of the 19th century describe the bird that was the ancestor of today's géline. Back then, it was called simply the "old black hen of Touraine" or, in everyday language, "la noire de Touraine" or "the local hen."

By the 1870s, the area in which the black chicken of Touraine was raised had expanded to include all of the southern part of the provine and a part of the Berry province to the east.

The géline made the markets of local towns like Sainte-Maure, Loches, and Montbazon famous. At Loches, more than 60,000 of the birds and many more of their eggs were sold annually.

In the early 1900s, French farmers starting raising chickens imported from other countries. Some local people weren't pleased about that, and one of them was a professor of agriculture in Tours named Jean-Baptiste Martin. In the early years of the century, he spoke out. Faced with the extinction of the local breed of chicken through hybridization with imported birds, professor Martin decided to "baptize" the local black chicken, giving it a recognizable name.

In a 1909 publication, he wrote: "We are in possession of a breed of chicken of great merit which has nearly been forgotten. Let's save it. Let's build a dike to protect it from the flood of foreign breeds that are being imported, which are not up to the same standard and are perturbing our barnyards. Farmers, breeders, chicken-lovers, let's work together and start the Touraine poultry-breeders club."

Before taking this initiative, Martin realized that the local hen really did need a name. He chose géline, and the name is still used and well known 100 years later.

The Touraine poultry-breeders club was founded the 12th of August 1909 at the big agricultural fair in the town of Bourgueil. Its bylaws were officially approved after the club's first general assembly was held in Tours on the 23rd of October that same year. The assembly established the criteria that define standards for the géline de Touraine breed.

So the géline de Touraine was really born on that day in 1909, even though the standards were not recognized nationally until 1913. The club's main focus was the géline, but over the years it also defined standards for the Touraine goose, the Touraine pigeon (now extinct), the Touraine gray rabbit (not yet certified) and finally for the Touraine black turkey (also now extinct).

In January 1917 the club held its first exposition, to show off specimens of the géline de Touraine. More than 280 gélines were put on display at a location in Tours.

Between 1945 and 1970, the géline went into decline. Local farmers started raising breeds of chickens developed in the Anglo-Saxon world and by industrial-scale breeders elsewhere in France. In 1977, French national authorities declared that the géline de Touraine breed was officially extinct.

In the 1980s, things began to change. In 1987, Mr. Maurice Brault, president of the local breeders association, found a flock of chickens that he determined were gélines de Touraine in the southern part of the province. He collected six dozen eggs and successfully hatched some of them. A couple of years later, working in Loches, he had 200 chicks. He gave some to a breeder in Genillé, who raised them successfully.

In 1988, an organization called La Confrérie (Brotherhood) des Chevaliers (Knights) de la Géline de Touraine was created. Its motto is: "Géline de Touraine am I, and proud to be from Loches."
That's the story. Today our itinerant butcher will bring us our Christmas géline. I could have driven to his shop over in nearby Thésée to pick it up, but he said he would be out making deliveries anyway and would stop by.

We cooked a géline just once before, and I blogged about it here in April 2011. This time, we're going to have chestnut stuffing, winter squash, and green beans with the roasted bird.

23 December 2012

Apéros with neighbors

We had neighbors over for pre-dinner drinks and finger-foods last night. The French tradition of apéritifs (also called apéros in informal language) makes for a nice way to have people in without a lot of fuss and bother. D. and A. live two houses down the road from us in an old farmhouse that they have spent the last 33 years fixing up. They're both 66 years old.

They'd never been inside our house before — not even before we came to live here. We've been to their place only once. In other words, we've lived close to each other for 10 years now but we've never socialized. D. and A. don't live here full-time. They come from the Paris region, where they have an apartment about 15 miles northwest of the city.

Walt made a batch of corn muffins for us to have with our glass of wine.
The muffins have grated ewe's milk cheese (fromage de brebis) in the batter.

D. worked most of his life as a boulanger in a wholesale bread bakery in the town where they have their apartment. A. worked for more than 20 years, she told me, in the offices of the Galeries Lafayette, the big department store in Paris. I asked them how they ended up in Saint-Aignan, and they said one of D.'s co-workers (who was a pâtissier or pastry cook) told them about the house, which was owned by an aunt of his who had just died. They bought it. They no other connections to the Saint-Aignan area back then.

They said that when they first saw their house back in the late 1970s, there were nine people living in it — in a single room. The floor was terre battue (that's packed-down dirt). In the country in Touraine, the people and whatever farm animals they kept often lived together in a single building — the cows or goats on one end, and the people on the other, in a single room with a big fireplace that provided heat and served as the kitchen.

Touraine in winter (in a photo taken seven years ago on this date)

D. and A. said they have never flown on an airplane. Well, he said he was on a plane once, many years ago, when he was doing his military service.  They spend most of the year down here now, since she retired from her job, but they keep their apartment in the Paris region and spend part of the winter there. They said if we ever want to go spend a weekend up there when they are down here, they'd be happy to give us the keys. And there's a garage for the car. They said they'd be glad to keep Callie for us.

22 December 2012

Steak au poivre, sauce au cognac

Steak au poivre has been Walt's birthday dinner since 1981. I wasn't there for the very first one. He was  traveling around the south of France with some friends in December that year. In Antibes, on the Mediterranean coast, he had a steak au poivre in a restaurant on his birthday and thought it was really delicious. Memorable.

Steak au poivre garni de pommes frites

A year later we were both living in Washington DC when his birthday rolled around again. I told him I'd cook dinner. He told me about the steak au poivre in Antibes. I told him that I knew how to cook that — no problem. That was what we had for his 1982 birthday dinner. And we've made steak au poivre on December 21 every year since then.

A dry rub of crushed black pepper
In most years we've made the pepper steak with a cream sauce, which was my recipe in the 1970s. Then in the '90s we watched a Jacques Pépin (a well-known French cook and TV host who has lived in America for decades) and Julia Child (the American woman who introduced French cooking methods to America in the 1960s) cooking show in which Pépin makes his version of steak au poivre not with a cream sauce but with a sauce finished with butter. That's what we made this year (last year we made the cream sauce style — both are good).

We got a big, fairly thick piece of boneless entrecôte from the drive-up butcher this week — that's the cut known in different parts of the U.S. as rib-eye, New York strip, Delmonico, or club steak. To make French pepper steak, the first thing you do is crush some peppercorns using a mortar and pestle to make what is called a mignonnette de poivre. Then you rub the coarsely ground pepper all over the steak and let it sit for a couple of hours.

Sear the peppered steak on both sides in a heavy pan over high heat

When you're ready, you just sear the steak in butter over high heat in a thick-bottomed frying pan. Then take it out and cover it with foil and a kitchen towel, or put it in a warming oven, and let it rest for 10 or 15 minutes while you make the sauce.

Dice up a shallot and toss it into the pan that the steak cooked in. Let it fry for a minute or two, and then pour a good glug of cognac (or whiskey) into the pan. You can flame it, but it's not absolutely necessary. You can also use white wine instead of cognac to make the sauce (but it won't be as good, IMHO). Let the alcohol or wine reduce a little over high heat, and then add a quarter cup of dark beef stock. Let that too reduce a little and then put in either cream or some butter cut into small pieces to melt and give the sauce a nice gloss.

Put the steak back in the pan for a minute or two and spoon some of the sauce over it. It's ready.

21 December 2012

Peanut butter lunch

We are American, so you might think our peanut butter lunch would consist of sandwiches with PB and jelly (a.k.a. jam, confiture) on them. But no. We made a spicy peanut sauce out of the peanut butter and served it with broccoli, pasta, and a satay of skewered turkey breast meat.

The main thing about this meal is, of course the peanut sauce, and it's easy. Combine in a blender (or in a bowl if you want to use a stick blender) all the ingredients:

Spicy peanut sauce
¾ cup peanut butter
2 Tbsp. molasses (or black treacle)
¼ cup hot water
¼ cup cider or rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. lemongrass
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp. chopped onion
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 Tbsp. hot chili sauce
1 Tbsp. chopped or grated ginger

The lemongrass and fish sauce are optional. Blend all the ingredients to a smooth paste. Cook the sauce on low heat for 15 minutes, adding pinches of salt, pepper, and sugar to taste. Add more hot water as needed to get a medium consistency, neither too thick or too thin. Add a little more hot sauce (tabasco, for example) if you want to make an even spicier version.

Meanwhile, marinate a couple of boneless turkey (or chicken) breast filets in a mixture of fish sauce, soy sauce, chopped onion, chopped garlic, and chopped ginger. As you can see, I added an herb too — it's kaffir lime leaf, from a jar. Instead, you could use basil, or even some lemon zest or juice.

You can let the meat marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for as long as four hours if you have the time.

Wipe or shake most of the marinade ingredients off the turkey filets and flatten them slightly with a meat mallet if necessary.

Cut the meat into strips about 2 cm (1 inch) wide and thread them onto skewers. Brush them lightly with vegetable oil.

Put the skewered turkey strips on a rack. When the broccoli is ready, broil or grill them for two or three minutes on a side, until they are just cooked through.

Serve the turkey skewers with some of the peanut sauce at the table.

I was a little bit skeptical when I read somewhere that stir-fried broccoli would be good with spicy peanut sauce. Now I know that it is delicious. We get beautiful broccoli here right now, at the supermarket. I imagine it comes from Spain, but I forgot to look at the label.

I had half a red bell pepper left over from another meal, so I sliced it up and cooked it with the broccoli.
I stir-fried the broccoli and red pepper in vegetable oil, adding in the marinade I had saved from the turkey breasts. Then I added a little bit of water to the pan and put on a lid so that the vegetables would cook through just enough to stay slightly crunchy.

At the end, I added some cooked pasta (linguine here, but any pasta would be good), and spooned in a good amount of the peanut sauce. As soon as the peanut sauce had melted and I could stir everything around, it was done. Add a little hot water to thin the sauce if you need to. You don't want it gloppy.

20 December 2012

Driving like a chauffard *

It's raining again this morning, and it's supposed to rain for another 36 or even 48 hours. On devient des palmipèdes, if you know what I mean — nice weather for ducks, though we see ourselves more as swans. Bon.

It was raining yesterday when we went out for the Peugeot's first blow-out-the-carbon drive. We filled up the tank at the Intermarché gas station after pouring the recommended fuel additive in. We headed toward Montrichard, where we had a couple of errands to run. Along the way, I turned up a side road toward Pontlevoy, which is up a fairly steep hill from the river valley.

Typical winter weather, looking down the hill toward the river valley, past the trees.
that I'm afraid will fall on the electric lines in the next windstorm.

I kept the car in third gear, as Dominique the mechanic had instructed me to do. The compte-tours (tachometer) on the little Peugeot's instrument cluster shot up to 4000 RPMs at some points and stayed steadily at 3000 or even 3500 RPMs for long stretches. When the speed limit dropped from 90 kph to 50, I put the car in second gear and kept the RPMs at what I until recently would have considered totally unreasonable if not dangerous levels. Actually, the red danger zone on the compte-tours starts at 5000 RPMs.

Winter vineyard scene, between rain showers

After stops at the bank and a couple of supermarkets in Montrichard, we headed west toward the villages of Chissay, Chisseaux, and Chenonceaux. Our destination was the wine cooperative called La Gourmandière, in Francueil, across the river from the château de Chenonceau. We were revving all the way. Since it was raining, there wasn't much traffic (though it was hard to find a parking space in Montrichard).

At the co-op, we bought 30 liters of our own preferred carburant or fuel — red wine — for the holidays (Walt's birthday is tomorrow — et que la fête commence). Local Gamay, Côt, and vin de pays rouge either filled our own jugs or came home with us in bag-in-box packaging. We didn't drink any, so I could continue my Formula 1 style of driving on the way back to Saint-Aignan. Sorry, but because of the rain, I didn't take any photos.

At the supermarket in Montrichard, we bought some of the little sausages called
crépinettes for our lunch. That's caul fat (crépine) wrapped around them.

I got the impression that the car really enjoyed the workout. A couple of hours running at 3000 RPMs and up to 4500 RPMs (in bursts) should have had the desired effect. I was a little disppointed that I didn't see any smoke coming out of the tailpipe — as Dominique had led to believe me I would — but of course I was concentrating on the narrow, curvy little roads ahead of me, and not the tailpipe. And don't get me wrong — I didn't speed, I just drove the speed limit in gears lower than I'm used to shifting into.

We cooked the crépinettes for lunch with pasta and some of our own tomato sauce.

Thinking back, I used to drive that way all the time, and especially when we came to France for vacations and rented cars. Downshifting and using the car engine's braking power in curves and when coming to a stop was how we drove back then. I've always driven cars with manual transmissions (90+ per cent of the cars in France have stick shifts, not automatics) and I therefore much preferred renting vehicles in France than wimpy little automatics in the U.S.

Next week, we plan to take the autoroute over to the big town of Vierzon, 35 miles east on the Cher River, to continue the blow-out. I'll drive at the legal speed limit of 130 kph (81 mph) in fourth gear, which should get the RPMs up. I hope the car — and the employees at the contrôle technique shop — will thank me.

* A chauffard is a reckless or aggressive driver — a real menace on the roads.

19 December 2012

2012 French food poll

Here's the list of dishes that the 2012 poll asked French respondents to choose from as their favorites, and their rank. Each person polled could choose as many as five dishes. Which ones would you choose? Do you know them all? I think this is an interesting snapshot of French cuisine today.

Here's the list in English:

  1. Grilled or pan-roasted duck breast filets
  2. Mussels cooked in while wine served with French fried potatoes
  3. Couscous (North African meat & vegetable stew)
  4. White veal stew with onions and mushrooms
  5. Prime rib
  6. Roast leg of lamb
  7. Steak and French fries
  8. Beef Burgundy
  9. Raclette (melted cheese with cold cuts and potatoes)
  10. Stuffed tomatoes
  11. Grilled salmon steak
  12. Boiled beef dinner with vegetables
  13. Belgian endives with ham in cheese sauce
  14. Scalloped potatoes in cream sauce
  15. Chicken and French fries
  16. Scalloped potatoes with bacon and cheese
  17. Lasagne
  18. Pizza
  19. Spaghetti with meat sauce
  20. Rabbit in mustard sauce
  21. Ratatouille (stewed summer vegetables)
  22. Confit (slow-cooked duck leg/thigh pieces)
  23. Paëlla (Spanish-style rice with seafood)
  24. Sauerkraut with sausages, cured meats, potatoes
  25. Buckwheat crepes filled with cheese, ham, etc.
  26. Pork tenderloin with mustard sauce
  27. Cheese fondue
  28. Shepherd's pie
  29. Pasta carbonara (cheese & bacon sauce)
  30. Cassoulet (white beans with pork, duck, lamb, etc.)
  31. Chicken curry
  32. Sushi
  33. Moroccan-style lamb stew
  34. Salt cod with mashed potatoes
  35. Omelet
  36. Steak tartare (raw ground beef with condiments)
  37. Chitterling sausages
  38. Mediterranean fish soup
  39. Hamburger
  40. Chili con carne
  41. Elbow macaroni with ham

18 December 2012

La Blanquette

I've heard the French term « blanquette » translated into English as "blanket" — "blanket of veal." That makes me laugh, because I imagine trying to bite into and chew up a wool or fleece bed cover. Ugh. I guess the two terms are related, but the idea that the French word conveys is « blanc » or "white." A blanquette is veal or some other white meat — chicken, turkey, pork, or even lamb — cooked in and served with a white sauce.

Saturday's blanquette de veau at our house

We had blanquette de veau for dinner a couple of days ago. It's a wintertime dish. Comfort food. Bourgeois cooking (which means good home cooking). And it's a classic in France. Poking around in the blog this morning, I noticed a pattern. For us, blanquette seems to be a December dish.

It's not always veal, but it was last December (2011) as it was this past week. In December 2010, it was a blanquette de dinde — blanket of turkey, I guess you'd say. And in December 2009, it was a blanquette de poulet, but American-style: we call it chicken and dumplings. For all of them, the recipe I follow comes from a 40-year-old French cookbook that I like, and I posted it here.

A generous portion of blanquette de veau, to which I added champignons noirs
and petits oignons this time, served with noodles

What place does the blanquette de veau occupy in the French diet? There's an annual poll asking French respondents what their favorite dish is. In 2012, blanquette came in fourth, after finishing as number 1 in the same poll six years ago. The dishes that came it ahead of it this year are magret de canard (duck breast, often grilled), moules-frites (mussels and French fries), and couscous (a North African spicy meat stew of meat and summer vegetables served with couscous "grain").

More about the French food poll to come...