31 October 2013

Autumn delights

October ends today. The month appears to be going out like a lamb. After a 24-hour windstorm on Sunday into early Monday, which affected Brittany, Normandy, and England much more than the Loire Valley, our weather turned sunny and mild.

Sunset from an upstairs window on Monday 28 October, just as the windstorm ended

My collard and kale patch: a lot of the collard leaves have holes eaten in them, but it doesn't matter much.
Caterpillars, snails, and slugs are to blame, I'm sure. We garden organically.

On my walk with Callie yesterday, heading up a row of vines — the dog
usually runs along in a different row, so she's not visible here.

Tomorrow is La Toussaint, or All Saints' Day, and is a French holiday. Then it's the dreaded month of November, when the dark days usually settle in, with gray skies, rain, and chilly temperatures. We have the wintertime holidays to look forward to, however.

30 October 2013

Meatballs Burgundy

Autrement dit, boulettes de viande à la bourguignonne. I made these again a couple of days ago. The first time I made meatballs in beef burgundy sauce was back in 2009 (time flies). Here's a link to that post. We like to buy a cut of beef and grind the meat ourselves, so we know exactly what we are eating. This time it was a roast cut from the basse côte, which I think would be called chuck roast in the U.S.

I won't go into the details of the recipe here. I just got up and the day has dawned. We have a much earlier sunrise now that the clocks have been set back to winter (standard) time. Callie will be wanting her walk in a few minutes. One more cup of tea, and I'll be outdoors.

Back to the meatballs. I think this is an excellent way to make bœuf bourguignon. It takes a few minutes to make the meatballs, but they don't need a lot of ingredients other than ground beef, salt, pepper, breadcrumbs, and eggs. The flavor is in the sauce. Actually, I used wheat semolina (100 grams for 800 grams of meat) instead of breadcrumbs in the meatball mixture this time, and that worked really well.

I like to brown the meatballs in the oven instead of frying them in a pan on top of the stove. It's a lot less mess. Arrange the meatballs in a baking pan, on a silicone cooking pad or parchment paper, and put the oven on high — 220ºC / 425ºF. Leave them in the oven just long enough to brown, and then put them in the red wine sauce to cook through.

I had some beef burgundy sauce in the freezer, left over from a few weeks ago. Meatballs don't have to cook nearly as long as stew beef, and there's no danger of them being tough or stringy. A few minutes before you're ready to serve them, add a dozen or more little mushrooms to the pan. Serve with pasta, rice, or boiled potatoes, followed by a big green salad.

29 October 2013

Nadège — and Jacques Pépin

Yesterday we got a really nice surprise — a present — in the mail. It's a book. Here's the story.

Our blog friend Nadège, who often leaves comments here and on other blogs we read, is a makeup artist in Los Angeles. She's worked on Dancing with the Stars and many movies whose titles you would recognize. She rubs elbows with Hollywood stars. By the way, Nadège is French by birth, but she has lived in America for many years.

 Autumn leaves in the Renaudière vineyard outside Saint-Aignan

Last year and again this year, Nadège has worked doing makeup for the hosts and guests on the ABC (American Broadcasting Company) cooking show called The Taste. The hosts of the show are Anthony Bourdain (American of French descent), Nigella Lawson (British), Ludovic Lefebvre (French but lives in the U.S. now), and Brian Malarkey (American).

I first became aware of Ludo Lefebvre a couple of years ago when I saw him doing a video clip with Bourdain that I found on the web. He prepared jambon à la chablisienne, and we had recently been to Chablis when I saw the video, so I made the dish and blogged about it here. Bourdain and Lawson are well-known TV personalities in the anglophone world.

Anyway to get to the point, Nadège told me in an e-mail a month or two ago that one of the guests on The Taste was going to be the French-American chef, TV personality, and author named Jacques Pépin. Now if you're not American, you might never have heard of him. He's not much known in France, for example, or even in England, I think.

Jacques Pépin has been one of the biggest influences in my life as an amateur cook. After learning a lot about French foods and cooking from two women in France whose children and grandchildren were friends of mine, and who invited me not only to eat in their dining rooms but also help in their kitchens, I went back to America in the early 1980s. Walt and I lived in Washington, DC, and we started watching cooking shows on TV. I always tried to cook the way I had learned in France over the preceding decade.

We watched Julia Child, of course, and Jeff Smith, Graham Kerr, Martin Yann, Madeleine Kaman, Nathalie Dupree, and on and on. And we started watching Jacques Pépin's shows on public television. His cooking style and his personality exactly fit the approach to food and cuisine that suited my personality and taste. It was not fussy or rule-bound. For example, he likes to tell his viewers to try things in the kitchen that they might not be successful doing at first, but they will learn. "And if you mess it up," he would say, "nobody will put you in jail or anything. You'll just try again the next time."

More autumn vines

The only time I ever saw Jacques Pépin in person was once in the airport in San Francisco in the late 1990s. I was sitting in a café having, guess what, a glass of wine, waiting for my plane to start boarding, when I saw him walk by with a man who must have been his driver. Pépin lives in Connecticut, on the east coast, but all his TV shows are produced in San Francisco. When I saw him at the airport, I really wanted to go and talk to him, to thank him, but I didn't. I would have felt like some kind of stalker.

If you don't know Jacques Pépin, you can see a video here, showing him making French brandade de morue (codfish and pureed potatoes). Many other videos are posted on the same site (the KQED blog).

Anyway, there was Nadège telling me she would be working with Jacques Pépin in L.A. I asked her to please write about the experience and send me an e-mail. She did. She said all the hosts of The Taste were in awe of him, considering him a mentor and one of the best cooks in America. And in addition he is so personable and helpful. Pépin's home region, by the way, is La Bresse, near Lyon and Le Beaujolais, where his mother had a restaurant (she's still living at age 99, Nadège told me). He worked as a chef in Paris for a few years before moving to the U.S. in the 1960s.

Then yesterday, I got a small package in the mail. It was a book by Jacques Pépin that I don't have (but my friend CHM tells me he has it and likes it) called Fast Food My Way. I've already picked out three or four recipes I want to make. And best of all, Nadège asked Jacques Pépin to autograph it for us. He did a little drawing and wrote "To Ken and Walt, cook with love" and signed his name of course. That's his inscription up toward the top of this post.

I want Nadège to know that I think her gesture and gift are really meaningful, even moving. I have no way to thank her except to acknowledge her kindness and thoughtfulness here, in public.

28 October 2013

Pizza jambon-chèvre

How about a pizza with jambon de Paris and fromage de chèvre. Oh, and champignons de Paris too.
Good, and you'd better believe it. It's Jim Lahey's no-knead pizza dough (recipe here).

This goat cheese pizza, made partly to use up some leftover cheese, was better than I imagined it would be.
The good crust didn't hurt. Cut the ham into strips. Cut a log of demi-sec Sainte-Maure goat cheese into thin disks.
Cut the mushtooms, raw, into thin slices and lay them on the pizza after you've put on some tomato sauce.
Bake for a few minutes in the hottest oven possible, ideally on a stone.

27 October 2013

Raisin bleu ?

It looks like they could make blue wine with these, doesn't it? Why do we call it red wine, anyway?

These photos are already 10 days old. They are my memories of the
2013 grapes at La Renaudière, outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher.

P.S. We turned our clocks back (fall back, spring forward) overnight, so for now we have just
a five-hour time difference with the U.S. East Coast.

26 October 2013

Eating artichokes

Walt posted a photo of the dried artichokes in our back yard, so I thought I'd post about artichokes that we ate a few days ago. I bought them at the supermarket because they were too appetizing for me to resist.

I've posted about trimming, cooking, and eating artichokes before — here's a link. It's a pretty detailed post that I wrote back in 2007, and if you haven't ever prepared artichokes it will guide you. In addition, it includes a link to Elise's Simply Recipes blog that also gives detailed instructions. And don't neglect to look at the comments on that 2007 post; there are a lot of good ideas in them about cooking artichokes and about sauces to serve with them.

A field of artichokes on the Ile d'Oléron, on the Atlantic coast of France just north of Bordeaux.

This time, we ate the artichokes cold with a dipping sauce. You put the artichoke on your plate upside-down, and then you start pulling off leaves. At the base of each leaf there's a tender morsel of tasty artichoke pulp. Dip that end of the leaf in the sauce, and then scrape off the pulp and sauce with your front teeth.

Be sure to provide a bowl for the remains of the leaves you and your convives have eaten. You'll get the impression that you have more artichoke left when you finish eating that you had when you started. Once you've pulled off all the leaves, you remove the fibrous "choke" and eat the artichoke bottom.

Usually I make a bowl of mayonnaise to have with the artichokes, but this time I didn't bother. I had a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge, so I mixed a half cup of it with one little pot of plain yogurt. The yogurt thins the mayonnaise and cuts the sweetness of store-bought mayo. I seasoned the sauce well with salt and pepper, of course, and also pressed a big clove or garlic and added it to the sauce. It was good.

25 October 2013

Different days, different sunsets

The weather is changing again. Rain moves in today. That's normal for October 25. Usually, in northern France the winter rains start around La Toussaint, which is November 1.

Above is a sunset over the vineyard from three or four days ago. Sorry about the utility pole — it's supposed to come down soon, when they finally hook up the big ground-level transformer out back and start sending current through the underground wires they've put in.

And the second photo is a closeup of the same sunset, taken a few minutes later. Those wires will disappear one day soon too.

Those first two photos show typical October sunsets here in Saint-Aignan. I'm not saying that we see such a show every day at dusk, of course. But the third photo, just above, is a rare occurrence in October. It looks more like a July or August sunset. We've been pretty lucky with the weather over the past week or two.

I mentioned a day or two ago that the grapevine leaves were taking on their autumn colors. These Chardonnay vines are a good example. The grapes were harvested about three weeks ago. The sun is setting behind the trees that border the vineyard.

Yesterday I got some more good news, to go along with getting the speedometer in my old Peugeot fixed for a good price, and getting an important bureaucratic snag sorted out. Yesterday's news has to do with taxes.

I've been collecting two different retirement pensions from the U.S. for several years now. I recently learned that retirement pension income from the U.S. is not taxed in France. (For French retirees residing in the U.S., French retirement pension income is not taxed by the U.S. federal government either.)

For years, I had been declaring my pension income as if it were French-source income. I did the same this year and paid the tax bill in France. Live and learn. I filed an amended tax return in September, and yesterday I got a letter saying the money will be refunded to me soon. I don't need to do anything but wait.

In addition, another tax (the taxe d'habitation or resident's tax), which is paid by all homeowners and renters in France, is at least partially based on the taxpayer's taxable income. My taxe d'habitation will now be considerably lower than I thought it was going to be when it comes due at the end of November.

24 October 2013

Out walking in sunshine

As I've said before, every time the sun comes out here, you really owe it to yourself to get outside and enjoy it. Right now, not only are we having sunny skies but we are also having unseasonably mild temperatures. Yesterday was breezy, so everything was also very dry. Callie and I really enjoyed our evening walk.

All the grapes have now been harvested, as far as I can tell. The leaves on the vines are just beginning to take on their autumn colors.

Below, Callie looks like she's about to be whisked off by some kind of luminous spaceship. It's like she can't believe her eyes.

As Walt mentioned, this week we're having a special trash collection for things that are too heavy or cumbersome to be easy to take to the recycling center in our little Peugeot. Here's what we're hoping to get rid of — two leaky old rain barrels, some rotting window shutters, and the remnants of the big old concrete barbecue that had started to fall apart, and so on.

We hope all the things we've put out by the road will qualify for pickup. Somebody already came and took many of the metal objects, including the old TV antenna.

23 October 2013

Tajine de poulet et de courge

This is a really simple recipe. You might need to make your own spice blend, however, if you can't get the Moroccan ras el hanout mix where you are.

The ras el hanout mix I used included a little bit of cornstarch, which works as a thickener to make for a more velvety sauce, so you might want to add some, or some flour or potato starch, to your spice blend. The other ingredients in the ras el hanout are curry, powdered coriander seed, cumin, salt, carraway, turmeric, and hot red pepper including cayenne pepper. You could also just substitute commercially available curry powder, I think (but I haven't tried it).

You can use a whole chicken, cut up, or you can use chicken breast filets, thighs (boneless or not), and/or drumsticks. The main thing is to really dredge the chicken pieces in the spice mix, and not just sprinkle a little bit on. It needs a lot of spice. So don't use a spice mix that will end up too spicy hot for sensitive palates.

Lightly brown the spice-covered chicken pieces in vegetable oil in a fairly deep sauté or chef's pan, or a wok. Take the chicken out of the pan and set it aside, maybe in a warm oven.

Cut up a winter squash or some fresh pumpkin — butternut or acorn squash, for example. I used one half of a buttercup squash like the one I posted pictures of yesterday. You could substitute sweet potato. Trim the squash to take the peel off and cut it into one-inch cubes, more or less.

Peel and slice three good-sized onions. After you've browned the chicken, cook the onions in the same pan until they just start to brown a little around the edges. At that point, add the squash cubes and a handful of raisins to the pan. Optionally, toss in some almonds or macadamia nuts.

Arrange the chicken parts over the top, pour on a cup or more of water or broth, cover the pan, and let it simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through, the squash cubes are softened, and the liquid is velvety and thickened. (If you cook it too long, the squash will completely disintegrate into the sauce.)

Serve with some couscous grain, rice, or boiled potatoes.

This could easily serve 6, or four really hungry people. Here's an ingredient list:

1 whole chicken, cut up, or 2½ lbs. chicken parts
3 or 4 tsp. ras el hanout or curry spices, including cornstarch or flour
3 onions
1 or 1½ lbs cubed winter squash (peeled and seeded) or sweet potato
½ cup raisins (a handful)
1 or 2 cups water or broth

22 October 2013

Winter squashes

When I lived in France in the 1970s and '80s, nobody sold or cooked winter squash. (A winter squash is called « une courge » in French, and calling somebody a courge is like calling sombody a dummy.) I don't remember ever seeing butternut or acorn squashes in the markets or supermarkets. It was the same with pumpkins. Back then, people in Paris didn't believe in mixing sweet and salty foods on the same plate.

This is a buttercup squash — une courge buttercup — from our 2013 garden.

It turns out that was an urban view of the world. Out here in the country, people definitely ate them. So much so, it seems, some people viewed them as they viewed rutabagas: they were feed for animals that people had been forced to eat during hard times in the 1930s and '40s. They were not esteemed or valued. Our neighbors across the road, in their 80s now, find pumpkin and winter squash just repulsive.

In 2005 we grew a lot of these big sucrine du Berry squashes.

However, early on in Saint-Aignan, ten years ago, a woman we had met in the village gave us some seeds from a winter squash called a « sucrine du Berry » — sucrine obviously refers to sugar, and the Berry is the old province just to the south and east of Saint-Aignan, centered on the city of Bourges. We grew them and they were to us a kind of butternut squash, but bigger, and just as delicious.

A sucrine du Berry squash sliced open — all the seeds are in the bulbous bottom.

We've also grown pumpkins of two or three different kinds — potirons, citrouilles, potimarrons — with great success. The only time I had ever eaten pumpkin in France before we moved to Saint-Aignan in 2003 (and I lived in France for 7 or 8 years before coming to live here) was once in the late '70s on a trip out into the country.

The buttercup resembles an acorn squash but has this blue-colored bump on the blossom end.

I don't remember where it was, but I'll never forget that pumpkin soup. It was sliced onions and thin slices of orange pumpkin cooked in milk and broth with herbs. The pumpkin slices were just beginning to fall apart in the soup, and it was delicious. I'll have to make that soon. Not to mention pureed squash soups and "pumpkin" breads (which are really cakes). I've already made a Moroccan-style tajine with buttercup squash...

21 October 2013

Jardinage d'octobre

We actually got out in the garden yesterday and did some clean-up work. We're still getting over the colds, but we're a lot better, and the weather is weirdly warm for late October. The weather report on TéléMatin just pointed out that we are currently enjoying des températures dignes de la mi-septembre.

Garden tools just begging to be put to work

So on a Sunday morning, Walt picked up and composted at least three, maybe four, wheelbarrow loads of apples that had fallen to the ground. He wants to try to mow the grass one more time before cold weather sets in.

Des pommes, des pommes, et encore des pommes

Meanwhile, I pulled out all the tomato plants — nearly 30 of them. That involves cutting the ties holding the vines onto support stakes, and then pulling out all the stakes and putting them away. The next step is uprooting the plants themselves and carrying them over to a big pile of yard trimmings and clippings that we hope to burn soon. I also pulled out half a dozen big squash plants of different kinds.

Nasturtium volunteers taking over a garden plot

The main things still growing in the garden now are greens: kale and collards. I've jumped on the kale bandwagon. I'd never grown the plant before and it's doing well. The collard greens are suffering from snail and slug attacks because of the rainy weather we've had — the leaves are full of holes.

The greens of the moment: kale

When I mentioned to my mother in North Carolina that snails were attacking the collards but not the kale, she immediately said: "Well, that proves what we know: collards taste better." I'm not sure why anglophone expats in Paris are so kale-crazy these days.

I hope this kale is as good as the kale I ate in Albany NY in 2012 and in Morehead City NC last April.

I think I'll harvest the kale this week and cook it for freezing or canning. I know a lot of people say they don't like greens cooked as I think they should be cooked, but Walt and I do. I'll simmer the kale leaves with lightly sautéed onions, a sprinkle of hot red pepper flakes, and a well-flavored chicken broth — adding some white wine for sweetness. I want the kale greens to be tender and succulent, not tough and crunchy.

20 October 2013

Des coings dans le coin

We had a friend over for the afternoon yesterday. We were able to sit out on the terrace from two until six p.m., since the weather was so warm. It's 15ºC this morning — almost 60ºF.

Those grapes I mentioned and showed yesterday have now been harvested. I went to check on their status when I took Callie out for our walk late yesterday afternoon. I'm not sure if they are Gamay, Cabernet, or Côt grapes. I'll have to ask the grower when I see him again.

One crop that hasn't been harvested, and probably won't be unless I go pick some, is a load of quinces — coings — on a little tree right on the edge of the north parcel of the vineyard. I keep looking at them, and thinking about them, but I'm just not up to making more jelly after all the apple jelly I made last month and a batch of wine grape jelly I made a week or so ago.

The coing (rhymes with loin, foin, moins, point) is the fruit of the cognassier [ko-nyah-'ssiay]. It looks more or less like a huge yellow pear, as you can see. These quinces that I photographed for this post are probably the most beautiful ones I've ever seen. The fruit is covered with a fine down or fuzz.

In warm Mediterranean climates, quinces will ripen to the point where they can be eaten raw, apparently, but here in northern France they are as hard as a rock when we pick them. They are hard to cut up, but they make wonderful gelée [zhuh-'lay]. They are also good cooked — sliced and sautéed slightly in butter and served with roasted pork or chicken, for example. I don't know if they are grown in the U.S. at all. Probably somewhere.

19 October 2013

Grapes, still

It's very unusual to see so many grapes still on the vines at La Renaudière this late in October.
What a bizarre year 2013 has been, weatherwise.

I took these photos about 36 hours ago (Thursday afternoon). The sun had come back out earlier in the day.

Morning lows are in the mid-50s F these days, with afternoon highs approaching 70
(that's lows of 12º or 13º C and highs of 16º to 19º C).

I guess these grapes, whatever kind they are, will benefit from our current warm daytime temperatures and
pale afternoon sunshine by continuing to ripen before being made into red wine.

18 October 2013

Callie tutoyant le soleil

Nous avons vu un beau soleil hier pour la première fois depuis... trop longtemps. Quand je suis sorti avec Callie vers six heures du soir, elle était aux anges. Elle s'est arrêtée une minute au milieu du jardin potager comme pour dire à l'astre solaire : Merci, je suis contente que tu sois revenu.

With any luck, the sun will stay with us all weekend.

17 October 2013


I was just reading about the salad green called mâche in French and learned that it is rich in vitamin C. Good, because with these colds — mine is definitely better but Walt is still really suffering — we need a lot of that vitamin right now. We had a mâche salad for lunch yesterday, with fresh tomatoes (more vitamin C).

Fall is the season for mâche, which I've heard called "lambs' lettuce" and which I see is also called "corn salad" — that might be the British name for it, as "corn" means any grain over there and mâche can grow wild in fields of grain. Mâche goes by a lot of regional names in France.

Mâche makes a good salad with vinaigrette dressing. It's nutty flavored, not bitter, and has a nice tender texture. It contains a lot of beta-carotene and very few calories. It can also be eaten cooked like spinach. I've read that Thomas Jefferson grew mâche in his gardens at Monticello in Virginia two centuries ago. Walt and I once grew it in our vegetable garden in California.

In France, a frequent accompaniment to salade de mache is cooked beets. I've always seen it served that way here, since the 1970s. Another frequent accompaniment, and less desirable, is sand or grit. You have to wash mâche very carefully to make sure you get all the sand off it. Mâche is sold as tiny little plants — leaves, stems, and even roots. That's where the sand catches. You can carefully cut the root off each miniature mâche plant before you wash the leaves, if you have the patience.

The mâche that I found at SuperU the other day is remarkably grit-free. I've just had to wash it in a couple of changes of water and then spin it well to make it ready for dressing. The salad we had for lunch yesterday included mâche, lardons (smoked pork bacon), some of our last fresh tomatoes from the garden, beets, boiled potatoes, and hard-boiled eggs. The vinaigrette is made with Dijon mustard, cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and two oils, corn and olive.