28 February 2015

Noyers food signs

One of the things we did in Noyers-sur-Serein, in Burgundy, was buy food. That shouldn't surprise anybody. We didn't have a restaurant meal, but we visited the village's main boucherie-charcuterie to get food to bring back with us to Saint-Aignan, as well as some to prepare and eat at the nearby gite where we were staying.

I think that the photos are large enough so that you can read the text if you click or tap on them to display them at full size. On the first sign above, you'll see an item called « Jambon Persillé de Bourgogne ». We bought a big package of that. It's chunks of ham in an aspic that has a lot of parsley in it. You eat it cold as a starter course before you have the main course of your meal.

The hand-written sign on a chalkboard is harder to read, but you get used to deciphering such signs when you live in France. You see them on sidewalks and in shop windows all over the country, as well as in restaurants announcing the daily specials. On the sign above is a list of cuts of meat that you would cook at home.

Above is a composite photo of the shop. The little round sign in the middle between the words charcuterie and boucherie says « Maison fondée au XVIe » — the business was founded in the 16th century. It includes a tearoom and a restaurant in addition to the butcher/deli shop

27 February 2015

Noyers houses (1)

The village of Noyers in Burgundy is full of half-timbered houses, called « maisons à pans de bois » or « maisons à colombages » in French. The first name just refers to "pieces of wood" — that's what such a house is built with. The second expression, à colombages, is more complex linguistically.

I've always wondered where the term « colombage » came from, but I had never looked it up. I just read that the word « colombe », which it's derived from, has nothing to do with the homonym word « colombe » that means "dove" in French. Colombe in this sense is an archaic rendering of the classical Latin word « columna », meaning "column." That's « colonne » in modern French. So the colombages are wooden "columns."

Another "framed" photo of the streets and houses of Noyers-sur-Serein in Burgundy

Okay, maybe that's too esoteric. Also esoteric are my struggles with the Blogger interface when it comes to posting large photos. If you look at the first photo(s) in this post, you'll see a black horizontal line separating the two halves of the large image of a Noyers house. I wish I could get rid of that line, but I can't. I want to post the photo at a very large size, but Blogger also imposes limits on image size. So the the best I can do is cut the image in half and post it as two images. It's interesting, because when I look at the photo in the Blogger authoring tool, that horizontal black line is not there...

26 February 2015

Noyers in Burgundy

I still haven't finished writing about our short trip to Burgundy last October. One of the most interesting towns we saw was called Noyers, an ancient settlement on the Serein River not far from Chablis and Avallon. Noyers (pop. 675) is pronounced [nwah-YEHR], I quickly learned. Across the Cher River from Saint-Aignan is another town called Noyers (meaning "walnut trees") but its name is pronounced [nwah-YAY]. You never know how proper names might be pronounced. For example, Beaufort in North Carolina is [BOH-furt] but Beaufort in South Carolina is [BYOO-furt].

I took a photo of this sign in Noyers. It is one of the official "most beautiful villages in France," of which there are about 150. You can read it if you click or tap on the image to enlarge it, or you can read my translation below.

Noyers-sur-Serein   One of the most beautiful villages in France

Noyers lies at the foot of Saint George Mountain, a high hill on which, according to ancient chroniclers, once stood one of the proudest castles in France.

Under the protection of powerful lords — the Miles dynasty — the town expanded in the 11th and 12th centuries within an oxbow loop of the Serein River, which along with walls and ramparts shielded the site from attack. Some of the ancient defensive towers and town gates remain today.

Within the walls of the village, you can stroll through old streets with picturesque names: Little Wine Route Road, Salt Storehouse Square, King’s Weight Street, Wheat Market Square.

At the end of the 15th century, construction of the church of Notre Dame gave Noyers a new look. Under the control of the Dukes of Condé in the 16th century and the Dukes of Luynes in the 18th, the village was graced by many beautiful new buildings, including the House of the Golden Fleece, the Kamato mansion, and the Renaissance-style city hall.

Thus does Noyers, through historical preservation, attract those who love the past, but also those who admire primitive art, of which the village museum possesses an impressive collection.

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We spent several hours in Noyers, including a long walk all around the town with the dog one afternoon. I have more photos, of course.

24 February 2015

Beef with broccoli, and other news

Yesterday, what did I do? A lot of days I ask myself that question. Well, I walked the dog and I cooked lunch. And yesterday I also bought my ticket for my annual springtime trip to the U.S. Then I reserved a hotel room at Paris CDG airport for the night before my departure. The Air France plane takes off at 8:00 a.m., so I have to spend the night up there before I fly.

As usual, I cooked lunch. As I said yesterday, it was to be beef with broccoli. I had bought a pretty bunch of broccoli at the supermarket on Saturday, and I happened to have two more thin-cut beefsteaks (du rumsteak) in the freezer. It all just came together. Meal planning can be a lot of work, but sometimes things just happen.

Here's the recipe I used. It's based on recipes I found on the 'net and adapted to to my tastes and the ingredients I had on hand. For example, I didn't put in the sugar that a lot of recipes called for. Instead, I added some sweet dark soy sauce and some sweet Japanese hon mirin rice wine to the light soy sauce the beef marinated in — any semi-dry white wine would work. And I added crushed, chopped ginger to the marinade too. I put a good pinch of Chinese five-spice powder in the cooking sauce. I'm sure I put in more hot red pepper flakes than a lot of recipes recommended.

Beef and broccoli stir-fry

To marinate the beef
¾ to 1 lb. lean beefsteak cut into strips
1 Tbsp. light soy sauce
1 tsp. sweet dark soy sauce
1 Tbsp. crushed, chopped ginger

1 pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. hon mirin or other semi-dry white wine

To make the cooking sauce
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. mirin (or other wine)
¼ to ½ cup broth or water
1 or 2 pinches five-spice powder
2 tsp. or more dried hot red pepper flakes

To stir-fry the broccoli
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 small onion, sliced 
1 lb. broccoli, cut up
vegetable oil (for stir frying)

Marinate the sliced beef for 30 minutes or more in soy sauce and the other ingredients listed above.

While the beef is marinating, make the sauce by dissolving the cornstarch (fécule de maïs) in the soy sauce. Stir in the mirin (or other wine), garlic, hot red pepper flakes, and some of the broth or water (you can add more just before serving if you need it). Set the sauce aside.

Heat a wok or large heavy skillet over high heat, pour in some vegetable oil, and heat it until it just begins to smoke. Stir-fry the beef in the oil in small batches for 1 minute, or until it is no longer pink. Set the beef aside in a bowl or on a plate.

Add the remaining vegetable oil to the wok, heat it until it is hot but not smoking, and  then stir-fry the garlic and onion for a minute or two. Add the broccoli and stir-fry the mixture for another minute or two.

Pour some hot water into the wok, put on a lid, and let the broccoli steam for 2 or 3 minutes, until it is tender but still crisp. Remove the cover and let most of the water evaporate.

Then stir the cooking sauce well to make sure the cornstarch is dissolved and add it to the wok, along with the beef and any cooking juices it has released as it rests. Cook the mixture, stirring, for 2  or 3 minutes, or until the sauce is slightly thickened, the beef is heated through, and the broccoli is done to your taste. Add a small amount of broth or water as needed to finish the sauce.

Serve with rice or noodles, adding some light soy sauce and sesame oil at the table...

23 February 2015

Seems like old times...

I can tell spring is on the verge of springing because I've had two allergy "episodes" — I won't say "attacks" — over the past three days. The first one came on Friday morning while we were out taking a drive in the Citroën. As we approached Montrichard, on our way to Amboise and Limeray, it started raining.

I was driving, and I started realizing that my eyes were burning and my vision was not clear. My nose started running, and I had a sneeze or two. This is the pattern I think I've figured out: when a spring storm brings us a southerly flow of moist, warmish, pollen-laden air, I'm in trouble. On Friday, Walt drove the car back home from Limeray (takes about an hour), and I realized that that was good thing because my blurry vision meant I couldn't read the road signs. I could see enough to drive, I guess, but just barely.

Cashew chicken — cubes of chicken breast meat marinated and cooked in soy sauce, honey, lime juice, ginger, and hot red pepper flakes, plus green peppers, onions, and cashews

This used to happen to me much more frequently when we lived in California. After ten years of being incapacitated by pollen allergies from February through May, I finally went to see an allergist. My regular doctor had told me for years that an allergist would only tell me I was allergic to pollen and, he said, "you already know that." It turned out that I had a severe allergy to cypress-tree pollen, and the whole California coast around San Francisco is lined with Monterey cypress trees.

Here in Saint-Aignan, the weather and wind direction changed on Saturday and I felt okay. Then yesterday, late in the afternoon, another rain front moved through the area — another southerly flow. I had a severe bout of sneezing and crying and blowing my nose in the evening. The strange part of these episodes is that they last such a short time. Three hours, this time. By bedtime, I was a little better — well, I also took a couple of antihistamine tablets — and this morning I feel a lot better than I did twelve hours ago.

Stir-fry the chicken first. Take it out of the pan and cook the onions and green peppers next. Add what's left of the marinade and then toss everything together in the pan. Mix in cashews and moisten with a little bit of water to make a syrupy sauce.

If you have allergies, you know how maddening it is to try to figure out what triggers the onset of symptoms. In California, the misery would stay with me for weeks and even months on end, though more or less acutely depending on the day. Toward the end of our residence there, I started to realize that wind direction had a lot to do with it. Here in Saint-Aignan, I still have two or three attacks a year, but they never last much more than 24 hours, and often less. That's an improvement.

If you have an allergy to a specific food, you can just avoid that food. It's not good to be allergic to a whole variety of foods, though. And when the weather is the culprit, there's not much you can do about it but suffer. So here we are. It's raining but not very cold. I don't have to go anywhere today, except to walk the dog (who turned eight years old yesterday, by the way) in the vineyard, weather permitting. I don't know what to expect. I do know that I'll be making Chinese-style beef with broccoli for lunch. Yesterday we had Chinese-style cashew chicken for lunch. A couple of pictures of it are what you see above.

22 February 2015

Cash... Johnny Cash

Look, I found a stash of Cash in the trunk of the previously owned vehicle I bought a few days ago!

Maybe this is a prize the dealer gives to people who pay him cash for a car.

Is it just me, or aren't the expressions "used car" or "second-hand car" really pejorative-sounding? In French, such a car is « une voiture d'occasion » — to my ear, « une occasion » conveys the idea of "a real find" or a stoke of luck. A happy surprise.

21 February 2015

No photos today, just some blah-blah

We took the old Peugeot into the mechanic's yesterday so that his crew could change out the timing belt and water pump. It's been 10 years since the timing belt was last replaced. When I bought the Citroën a couple of weeks ago, I realized that putting on a new timing belt is not just necessary after a car has run a certain number of kilometers (160K for the Peugeot, and I've only put 80K on it in 10 years), but also after a certain period of time. In the case of both my cars, that time limit is 10 years.

I'll feel good about the Peugeot again, and I'm going to take it out for a drive this morning to see if having a new timing belt makes it drive differently. We left the car with the mechanic, Dominique, overnight. We'll go pick it up this morning. The man at the Renault dealership where I bought the Citroën put a new timing belt on that car when I bought it. So I decided to go to his shop and ask for an estimate of the cost of doing the Peugeot too.

As I expected, the dealership's estimate came in a lot higher than my independent mechanic's did. Dominique wanted 465 euros to do the job. The dealer wanted 725 euros ($825 in U.S. dollars at today's exchange rate). I went with the lower estimate, especially since Dominique has been my mechanic for many years now and has consistently done very good work for very reasonable prices. He came out and took a look at the Citroën, saying he thinks the C4 is a good, solid, reliable car. He said he didn't see too many of them coming into the shop with repairs needed. That made me feel good about finding a low-mileage C4 at a good price.

It's a real luxury to have two cars. Now I don't have to sit and wait while the Peugeot is being serviced or repaired. In the past, for all these years, I've always had to wait in the seating area at the garage while the car was being worked on. Or I could walk a few blocks over to Intermarché or some other store in the business park where Dominique's shop is located. If it was raining, that wasn't too much fun.

So we left the Peugeot with Dominique and we drove the Citroën up to Amboise and on to Limeray, a wine village on the north side of the Loire. We wanted to stop and have a look around in a garden center called Baobab in Amboise, and that's what we did. We wanted to buy some wine at the Léonard de Vinci cooperative in Limeray, and we did that too. And we mostly just wanted to take a drive in the car. It started to rain, so we found out how the car behaved under less than ideal weather conditions. Walt drove the car for the first time.

As we drove into the village center at Limeray, there was a chicken running around on the main street. We had to be careful to avoid the bird, which didn't seem to be too bothered by our car and the few others on the streets of the village. A chicken playing chicken with the cars downtown on a rainy day... Now why was it again that the chicken crossed the road?

20 February 2015

A French song about a road trip

Eddy Mitchell is the stage name of a French singer and actor whose career started in the early 1960s. He was born in 1942 in Paris, and his real name is Claude Moine. More than fifty years ago, he was the leader of a 1950s-American-style rock and roll group called Les Chausettes Noires — "the black socks." Mitchell's musical idols were Bill Haley and the Comets (Rock Around the Clock) and Gene Vincent (Be-Bop-a-Lula).

Mitchell later started a solo career based on covers of American country music and French ballads. His songs usually tell a little story, and you hear some of them on French radio nearly every time you turn it on. He has also acted in many films over the past three or four decades. He no longer performs live on stage, but he still has a recording career. As far as I know, despite his love of American country music, he doesn't speak English. He has won the French equivalents of the Oscar and Grammy awards for his work. You might call him "a country crooner."

Here's one of his titles that you hear often. It's a cover of a Tom T. Hall tune about Memphis, Tennessee. In French, it's called Sur la route de Memphis. The image of an American sheriff driving his hand-cuffed, down at the heels prisoner toward Memphis while drinking a beer in the car, with his crazy-eyed German Shepherd dog (un chien-loup) sitting on the front passenger seat (la place du mort), is striking.

J'écoutais le disc-jockey
Dans la voiture qui me traînait
Sur la route de Memphis,
Sur la route de Memphis.


Et la radio me vantait
Un truc débile qui m'endormait,
Sur la route de Memphis,
Sur la route de Memphis.


Je viens vers toi.
Tu m'attends dans ta robe blanche.
L'amour en province
Ressemble un peu à un dimanche.

Sur le siège avant, le chauffeur
Buvait de la bière en regardant l'heure,
Sur la route de Memphis,

Sur la route de Memphis.

A la place du mort, un chien-loup
Me jetait un regard un peu fou,
Sur la route de Memphis,
Sur la route de Memphis.

Je viens vers toi, mais pas dans une Rolls blanche,
Dans un costume un peu élimé aux manches.
J'ai le droit de me taire et d'fumer
En gardant mes menottes aux poignets,
Sur la route de Memphis,
Sur la route de Memphis.

Pour une fois les flics ont gagné.
Vers chez toi je ne fais que passer,
Sur la route de Memphis,
Sur la route de Memphis.

I've said this many times, but nobody seems to pay me much attention: one of the best ways to get a grasp on French pronunciation and learn a lot of grammar, vocabulary, and expressions is to listen to French popular music. Even if it seems hokey to begin with, it's worth the effort to listen and learn.

19 February 2015

Living in your car. Or at least feeling like it.

I'm not sure I would have ever thought that I'd own both a Citroën and a Peugeot. Or that I'd own two automobiles myself. And that one of them would be nearly 15 years old. And still running fine.

In my U.S. days, it was easy for me to drive my car 20 or even 25 thousand miles every year. That's 30 or 40 thousand kilometers. Early on, I left North Carolina and moved to Illinois. I was 22 years old. First I had an old Ford (a 1966 model) that I hated. I sold that and moved to France, where I didn't have a car. Then when I returned to the U.S.in 1973, I went to North Carolina and bought myself a brand new Opel Ascona. A sedan. Four doors. No air conditioning, no electric windows. An AM radio though! It cost me the royal sum of 3,250 dollars. (Not a typo.)

I needed a car because I drove back and forth from near Chicago to the N.C. coast several times a year. That's a distance of about 900 miles (1500 kilometers), each way. Nine hundred miles! One time I drove it without stopping, passing through the mountains of West Virginia in the middle of the night, on winding roads because the interstate highway through W. Va. was still under construction. That trip took me 23 sleepless hours.

I would also drive to Washington, D.C., the U.S. capital city, every year and sometimes twice. That took 15 hours on four-lane, limited access interstate highways. Each way. You can see how easy it was to rack up the miles on a car.

Later, when Walt and I lived in Washington ourselves, we both had cars. Subarus. We thought nothing of jumping in the car on a weekend and driving hundreds to miles to see places like Piedmont North Carolina or the Outer Banks. We went to Monticello, in Virginia, Asateague and Chincoteague Islands, and Harper's Ferry in West Virginia. We were learning about the history of the United States by going to the historic sites. We also drove to Philadelphia, New York, and even all the way to Québec in Canada, and farther north to Chicoutimi and the Lac St-Jean area. My Subaru was new then, and I walked to work in DC every day. Walt and I both grew up in towns located 350 miles from DC. Walt north and me south. We would jump in our cars and make those seven hour drives without thinking too much about it. It was fun.

In 1986 we drove across the whole North American continent, from Washington DC to San Francisco — twice. Once in a Subaru and once in a truck that we rented to transport the few sticks of furniture we owned back then, because we had upped stakes and headed west for a new life. That's a 3 thousand mile trip. Five thousand kilometers. Five days on the road. It was pretty exciting, both times.

Then there were the California years. Commuting. For a few years we lived in downtown San Francisco and I worked there too. People would say to me: "Don't you want to live farther out, where you could have a house and a yard? More space? Less noise? How can you stand the congestion and hustle of the city?" I told them I would rather not to have to drive many miles and hours from an outlying area into SF every day for work. In traffic and over bridges. No, I'd rather keep driving as a hobby. A weekend treat.

When you don't have to drive in traffic every day, it's fun to take the car out for a long drive on weekends, and see things. As we'd done in DC. In California, we'd go on camping trips up in the mountains or on the beautiful California coast. Once we spent a week driving to Seattle and Vancouver, a round trip of 2 thousand miles. Just for fun. We'd frequently go up to Napa Valley to taste and buy wine, and have a nice lunch. Later, we'd often drive the 9 hours down to the desert of Southern California a time or two a year, to see CHM, who had a house down there. And 9 hours back.

In 1989, I got a new job, and I had to commute. I tried commuting by train, but it was a real slog. I'd leave my car in a parking lot at the train station in SF and ride a bouncy, swaying train for an hour to get to Silicon Valley. Then I'd have to ride a bus from the station down there to my office. That worked for a while, but then my company moved its offices farther away from any train station and the 90-minute trip by train and bus became a 2½ hour ordeal. I gave up. Driving was my only choice.

At the end, I was driving 52 miles (80 kilometers) in traffic jams every morning to Silicon Valley, and of course the same distance in traffic jams back to SF in the evening. That meant I was spending 2 to 4 hours a day in my car, plus 9 or 10 hours a day at the office. After a decade of that kind of commuting insanity, I was a wreck. I threw in the towel at age 53. And moved to France. Now I drive about 5 thousand kilometers a year. That's 3 thousand miles. Per month, 250 miles. Actually, even that sounds like a lot to me. But compared to the 2,000 miles a month I drove for so many years, it's pretty relaxing.

18 February 2015

Walnut Shortbread Cookies

I didn't take any photos of yesterday's lunch, un gratin de côtes de blettes — pre-cooked Swiss chard ribs baked in a cheesy cream sauce — but it came out really nice. I sprinkled grated Cantal and Mimolette cheeses over the top before browning the dish in the oven. I also mixed some cooked lardons fumés in with the chard ribs to make it into a full meal. In France, people often cook the fleshy white ribs of the chard leaves separately from the green part of the leaves, which is prepared and served like spinach.

I did snap a photo of the cookies we made yesterday afternoon. The recipe came out of a book called Miette that an American friend passed on  to us. Miette is a bakery in San Francisco. The Walnut Shortbread Cookies recipe is one that I plan to save before I pass the book on to another friend who likes to bake.

The Walnut Shortbread Cookies are very rich. The same friend who passed along the cookbook also has given us tons of walnuts over the past few years. She and her husband have a big walnut tree on their property down the road from us and it has been producing nuts like crazy.

The cookies are rich because they are made with a ton of butter — 225 grams of it, which is about half a pound. Otherwise, it's just flour (1½ cups), sugar (¾ cup), one egg yolk and half a cup of walnuts that you toast and then reduce to a powder, either in a food processor or, as I did, in a mortar and pestle. If you want the full recipe, let me know in a comment and I'll post it.
P.S. Here is the recipe

Walnut Shortbread Cookies

½ cup walnut pieces
1½ cups flour
½ tsp. salt
225 g butter, cold and cubed
¾ cup sugar
1 egg yolk
sea salt
(Note: A U.S. cup is 8 fluid ounces.)
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

Toast the walnuts and then let them cool. Grind them finely in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Sift together the flour and salt and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle, beat together the sugar and the butter for 4 minutes. Add the egg yolk and mix until completely blended. Add the dry ingredients and walnut powder and mix just to combine.

If the dough is soft, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 30 minutes. Then roll it out ½” thick and square the edges of the dough. With a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut the dough into 1” squares. Place them 2 inches apart on parchment paper on a baking pan. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt.

Bake until cookies are firm, about 10 - 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

17 February 2015

Local color

Here's what the Renaudière vineyard outside Saint-Aignan is looking like on these February days. I'll be going out there for a walk with the dog in just a few minutes. The weather is mild and damp at this point.

Looks like I'll spend most of the morning, after the walk, in the kitchen again. Un gratin de côtes de blettes and walnut shortbread cookies are on today's menu. We planned out the week's menus — ailes de poulet avec boulettes de courgettes, soupe à l'oignon gratinée, rôti de filet mignon de porc et patates douces cuites au four — yesterday morning.

16 February 2015


Thizy is a very small village located near the small town of Montréal in Burgundy. It has a château and a village church, and it has a big maison de retraite (retirement home) across the road from the château, which dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries. We made a stop at Thizy last October.

According to its Wikipedia page, the Château de Thizy is still lived in. In fact, it's been divided up into apartments and serves as a kind of condominium complex (une copropriété). The population of the village of Thizy is about 165. I wonder how many live in the château.

We just drove up into Thizy out of curiosity after the long walk we had taken with the dog in nearby Montréal. The château is of course not open to the public, since people live in it, and the village church was locked up tight.

Every French village and town has a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Great War of 1914-18. Ceremonies around the world are being held these days to mark the 100th anniversary of that war. In fact, I got a request from a group in the state of Washington in the U.S. to use one of my photos of the town of Saint-Aignan, because a veteran from the town there was stationed here during WWI.

I enjoyed looking at the old stone carvings on the château's grounds, outside the main gate. I wonder if the one on the left is a gargoyle that has been taken down off the church or the château. It was on the ground

You might call the statue on the right "the green goddess." Of course it's a madonna and child. It was set in a niche in the wall of the château's fortifications.

There was a lot of activity at the retirement home across the street in Thizy, with a good amount of car traffic while we were there. Maybe the employees were getting off work at that hour, or a shift was changing.

15 February 2015

Hamburger steak au poivre

When I lived in Paris all those years ago, in a small 5th floor walk-up just off the rue Montorgueil, square in the center of Paris, I used to cook for a group of Parisian friends on weekends. One of the things we all enjoyed eating was French steak au poivre — steak with a black pepper and cream sauce — with sauteed potatoes and a green salad.

Because my budget wasn't really regal, I often made the steaks with ground beef. It was more tender than real steak selling at the same price, and the butcher would grind the meat when you ordered it, so you could see what cuts of beef he was using. It was always very lean.

Walt and I decided to make that the other day. We had some very thinly sliced, lean pieces of what they call rumsteak (rump steak) in France. They were too thin for making steak au poivre, which calls for thick cuts of beef cooked medium rare or even very rare. We decided to run two of the steaks through the meat grinder attachment on our stand mixer and shape the meat into thick patties.

First you coat the raw steaks with a good amount of cracked black pepper and let them rest for an hour or more to absorb the flavor. Then you sear them on high heat in a frying pan, and you take them out and let them rest while you make the sauce. Deglaze the pan with a little bit of cognac or white wine, put in a spoonful of Dijon mustard, and then add a few tablespoons of cream and stir it all together. Taste for salt. You can make as much or as little sauce as you want.

Walt made potato chips to go with our hamburger steaks. He cooked them in two batches in the deep fryer, and we put them in a warming oven while we seared the steaks and  made the sauce au poivre. We were surprised to see that the chips continued browning in the oven. They were browner than we expected but they were very good.

14 February 2015

My second short road trip

I went for my second drive in my new car yesterday. By the way, we need a new word in English. Or maybe I 'm just not thinking of a word that I should remember. In French, when I say « ma nouvelle voiture », I'm not conveying any information about whether I am the vehicle's first owner, or its second or third owner.

If the car is brand new and has never had a previous owner, then « c'est une voiture neuve ». A brand new car. Neuf and nouveau are only partial synonyms. My "new" car is not a "new" car. Oh well. It drives and looks like a voiture neuve. On my first drive in it, I was not enthusiastic. I hadn't yet got it all set up to my tastes and driving style. Yesterday's drive was a totally different experience. A fine one.

How do you like that speedometer (le compteur de vitesse) up on top of the dashboard (le tableau de bord)? What you see through the steering wheel (le volant) is the tachometer (le compte-tours). And no, I wasn't going 90 mph, but 90 kph.

I drove through the middle of Saint-Aignan — that takes about three minutes! — and south past SuperU and the Zooparc de Beauval on the very curvy road that runs down toward the village called Nouans-les-Fontaines, population 800. The road becomes as straight as a board about half way down, where I took the photo above. I know, driving and taking photos at the same time is not too smart, but as you can see, there wasn't much traffic to worry about.

At Nouans (where there is a famous 15th century painting in the church that was "discovered" less than 100 years ago), I turned left toward Luçay-le-Mâle (pop. 1,500), where there is a château that I've never been able to find, and on toward Valençay (pop. 2,600), where there is a famous château that I've visited many times. There, I turned north toward Selles-sur-Cher (pop. 4,600), where there is also a château and where I had an errand to run. From there, it's a straight shot west back to Saint-Aignan (pop. 3,000).

In all, I drove about 80 kilometers — that's 50 miles — and fiddled with the car's cruise control (le régulateur de vitesse), which I'm glad to have again; the heater and air conditioner; and the radio and CD player, when I was on open highway with no traffic (a lot of the time). The Peugeot is old enough to have neither cruise control or a CD player. I like the way the Citroën feels and drives, but it is bigger than the Peugeot 206 and that takes some getting used to.

Almost back home, I stopped in Noyers-sur-Cher, where there is no château but where there is a pretty 12th century chapel, and took a photo of the car with the chapel as a backdrop. I also took a photo of the interior, which I'm posting in black and white because I didn't like how the colors came out in the day's bright sunshine. The interior is all gray anyway. When I got home, I put the Citroën in the garage for the first time. The garage has a narrow door and I wasn't sure the Citroën would fit through it. It did. I didn't even have to fold back the side mirrors. Whew!

13 February 2015

Feuilles de chou (bis)

Following up on the cabbage rolls: I made stuffing out of slightly more than two pounds of fresh pork shoulder, grinding the meat myself and adding a cup and a half of cooked rice and three-quarters of a cup of raw couscous grain. I also put in about a cup of grated zucchini flesh for moistness. The seasonings were diced and sauteed onions, chopped raw garlic, and several spices: black pepper, smoked paprika, fennel seeds, celery seeds, powdered allspice, powdered hot red pepper, and so on. It's free-form. Use what you like. Add two or three eggs and mix everything together really well.

That made an awful lot of stuffing. I knew I would have some left over, and I wished I had saved a few more cabbage leaves. When I rolled up the 14 cabbage leaves with a generous dollop of stuffing in each, I was surprised how little pork I had left. So it worked out. I cooked the excess separately as little meatballs and we'll have them with pasta or on a pizza this weekend.

We ate six of the cabbage rolls at lunchtime. There was no need to have anything else with them besides bread and wine. Cabbage, rice, pork, eggs — a complete meal. The pork stuffing was smooth and tender. It tasted good. I didn't take a photo of one of the rolls cut open, but I will next time. Oh, the rolls cooked for 2½ hours in a medium and then low oven. They were packed tightly together in a big baking dish and moistened with chicken broth and white wine. We served them with some tomato sauce yesterday. Next time I think I'll make a lemony oregano cream sauce to go with them.

With eight cabbage rolls left over to put in the freezer, we'll have them again soon. Next time maybe I'll make some kind of side dish to go with them. Potatoes. Chickpeas. Kidney beans. Carrots. Something like that. I'm glad I bought that big Savoy cabbage and cooked it the ways I did. It feels good to eat healthy, delicious food. There's a also feeling of accomplishment in that.

12 February 2015

Feuilles de chou farcies au porc

That's pork-stuffed cabbage rolls. I'm making them this morning. But first, let me say that I found the body color code on the Citroën. It's on the driver's door frame. KTC, it says, and that translates to a color called « iridis métallique », according to a web search. In England, it seems to be called "iridis mica" — a pearlescent gray, an iridescent color. That mystery's solved.

Now back to the cabbage rolls. I have fourteen nice Savoy cabbage leaves in all. They've been blanched.

I also have a big chunk of pork that I will run through the meat grinder. With onions, garlic, herbs, spices, rice, and some eggs, that'll make a good filling. I need to get to work if we want to have cabbage rolls for lunch today.

11 February 2015

Aimez-vous manger les choux ?

Yesterday was a beautiful day, one worthy of early spring. Problem was, I didn't feel the greatest. I woke up groggy. I felt a chill, and I wondered if I was coming down with something. It turns out I don't think I was, because I felt better in the evening and seem fine this morning.

I spent yesterday morning in the kitchen. I got involved in cooking a big crinkly Savoy cabbage that I had bought at the supermarket for one euro a couple of days earlier. Maybe it was eating cabbage that made me start feeling a little better.

I didn't want to cook the cabbage in a big pot of water or broth as soup. I looked around on the web and I happened upon a recipe called « Poulet au chou vert frisé » — chicken with Savoy cabbage. I had also picked up a chicken at the supermarket the day I bought the cabbage.

The recipe calls for blanching the coarsely chopped up cabbage for five minutes in boiling water before cooking it. French recipes often call for blanching vegetables and then cooking them in fresh liquid. I think it makes the vegetables sweeter. That's what I did. I also sauteed three small chopped onions in butter. (I saved a good dozen of the sturdy outer leaves of the cabbage for making stuffed roulades later this week. I blanched them too, while I was at it.)

The cut up cabbage cooked for about 45 minutes with a cup of broth and the buttery onions, seasoned with salt, pepper, ground allspice, bay leaves, and a pinch of ground cloves. When it was mostly done and getting tender, I set the raw chicken, seasoned with some smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and more salt and pepper, on the bed of cabbage and onions. That all cooked, covered, for 45 minutes more in the oven.

Then I took the lid off the baking dish, turned up the heat, and let the chicken brown for 15 or 20 minutes. That was enough time for a good bit of the cooking liquid in the dish to evaporate. The result was tender cabbage and crispy, succulent chicken. The recipe said to serve the chicken and cabbage with some warm cream, but I left that part off for yesterday. We just had cabbage, chicken, and good fresh bread from the local baker.

While I was blanching and cooking the cabbage, Walt went out to do some chores in the yard. When he came back in, he looked at me and said that it sure smelled like cabbage in the house. "And it smells really good," he said. Luckily, we both like cabbage and find the aroma of it cooking to be appetizing.

10 February 2015

I feel lucky

I feel really lucky to have located this vehicle the way I did. I'd been thinking about getting a second car for quite a while. I'd looked at hundreds of ads on the Internet, and I'd picked out three or four dealerships that I thought I'd visit to check out the possibilities.

By the way, the photos in this post appear exactly as they came out of the camera. I took them yesterday late in the morning, when I got home with the Citroën. I haven't retouched the colors in Photoshop at all.

In December, I decided to pull my funds together. About that time, the dollar started rising against the euro. That motivated me to speed up my search for a car.

And then one day in January I was headed to Intermarché to do some grocery shopping when I noticed a car just like the one I had in mind sitting on the lot at a Renault dealership across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher, not 3 miles from our house.
I drove by there two or three more times in January before I decided to stop one day and see what the sign hanging inside the car, off the rear-view mirror, had written on it.

I was surprised at how low the mileage was — the car has been driven an average of only *11,000 km (7,000 miles) per year* (I mixed up my figures in an earlier version of this post) since it was first registered. I was pleased to see how low the price was — only about two-thirds of what I had budgeted. And I was pleased to see that the car was in such good condition.
A few days later, I called the dealer. Walt pointed out that I really ought to drive a C4 before I made a decision. I figured I could drive this car without feeling obligated to buy it, after all. Maybe I'd hate it.

As it turned out, I didn't have to deal with individuals selling cars on the web. I didn't have to go talk to several car dealers to try to find what I wanted. And if the car needs service, the dealer's garage is close by. The car has a warranty. The dealer is a local man who has a reputation to maintain.

When I lived in the U.S., I bought new cars. I had five of them over the years. I did own a couple of used cars back in the 1970s, but I kept each one of them only a year or two. One was a Subaru that I bought from a friend who was leaving the U.S. for a job overseas.

People used to say that buying a used car was buying somebody else's problems. The fact is, cars nowadays are much more reliable for a longer period of time than they used to be. I've had the little Peugeot since August 2003, and I bought it used. It has needed some repairs over the years, but nothing really major. It's been a great car. Now I've realized that it needs a new timing belt pretty soon if we are going to keep it.

You can click or tap on the pictures to see them at a larger size. As for the car's color, it looks different on each screen (computers, tablets) that I use to view the photos — less mauve on some, and more gray. Since all the displays are calibrated differently, it's hard to know which one is more accurate or true.

09 February 2015

Sunday dinner, and a new car

Yesterday we decided to make Julia Child's version of the old restaurant classic called Steak Diane. I had just happened to buy some thin-sliced steaks (rumsteak in French) at the supermarket the other day and it seemed like a good use for them. In Julia's version, the steak is cut or pounded out to a thickness of just ¼" (6 to 7 mm) and then cooked very quickly in a pan in clarified butter. Then, while the pan-seared steaks rest, you make the Diane sauce in the pan.

First, season the steak by splashing on a few drops of soy sauce and a teaspoonful of olive or other vegetable oil on both sides and rubbing it in with your fingers. A grind of black pepper is a good idea that this point too. Once the steak is lightly cooked on each side, take it out of the pan and keep it warm.

Melt some butter (I didn't bother with clarified butter) in the hot pan and toss in a finely chopped shallot or small onion (or a chopped clove of garlic, why not?). Let it sizzle a little and then add a few ounces of beef broth to the pan and stir in a good spoonful of Dijon mustard. Optionally, enhance the sauce with a couple of tablespoons of whiskey or cognac. Add more broth as you see fit. When the sauce is bubbling away — the mustard will thicken it slightly — slide the steaks into the pan and turn them over in the sauce. They are ready to serve — no need to overcook them.

On the Internet, I found a lot of recipes for Steak Diane, in French as well as in English. Most of them seemed to call for a cream sauce. I think Julia Child's version with a mustard-based sauce is more interesting and probably more flavorful. To make the steaks into a full Sunday dinner, I made a bowl of mashed potatoes (with butter and milk) and a side dish of peas and carrots (fresh carrots but frozen peas) to go with them. If that's not Sunday dinner, I don't know what is.

Today is the day I'm supposed to go over and pick up the "new-to-me" car I bought last week. I had the money wired over from my credit union in the States last week, and I'm ready. Last week, after I gave him a down-payment on Tuesday, the dealer set about prepping the car, including changing the timing belt (a major job) and putting on new tires and wiper blades, as well as detailing (thoroughly cleaning) the vehicle inside and out.

Okay, I've been coy about posting a photo of the Citroën CF in question. There it is. I took the photo early last Tuesday morning. The car was covered in frost. I'm still not sure what the color is going to look like without frost and in bright sunshine. On Friday I went to my insurance agent's office in Saint-Aignan to get coverage, and as I stepped out of the office, what did I see but exactly the same car, the same color, passing slowly by. I thought it looked pretty good.

08 February 2015

Potato chips

Cooking is like learning a language. Every time you think you've got something figured out, a new technique, a new expression, a new method or word comes along.

We've never had a lot of luck making French-fried potatoes using fresh potatoes. They've never come out as crispy as we would want. They're good, but they aren't the best pommes frites in the world.

Crispy, light chips made with red boiling potatoes

There's a well-known Belgian comic/humorist who lives in our village — I just happened to hear him on the radio one day, years ago, and I was surprised when he named our village as his adopted home. He was asked by the interviewer whether he cooked pommes frites, a Belgian specialty, at home. He said yes, he did, but he had a hard time here in the Touraine finding the right kind of potatoes for frying. Every time he went back to Belgium, he said, he came back with the trunk of his car filled up with good potatoes from up there. So I concluded it was all about finding the right potatoes.

Buffalo-style wings, kale, and chips made with spuds sold as frying or mashing potatoes

Well, a few days ago, we wondered about making potato chips from fresh potatoes. Walt looked it up, and found a recipe that looked easy. Two ingredients: potatoes and peanut oil. It would make a good experiment. In fact, what it made was fantastic potato chips (or "crisps" if you are not American). We've made them twice now, cutting them on a mandolin using the "waffle" blade. (Funny — waffles are a Belgian specialty too.) So it turns out that the secret to good fried potatoes is not so much the potato you use but how you cut them up.

07 February 2015

Pizza aux oignons fondants

That means pizza with "melting" onions. Onions that have been "stewed" or "sweated" slowly in a little bit of olive oil for as long as an hour on very low heat.

First you have to peel and slice 1½ to 2 lbs. of onions. It's a good bit of work, but it's wintertime and there's not much else to do, especially not outside. I like to cut off the root end and then the stem end of the onion. Set the trimmed onion on its flat bottom and cut straight down through it. It's easier to peel that way. Then lay each half on its cut side and slice through it from stem-end to root-end to make little crescent-shaped strips.

Onion rings are another option. They'll cook down the same way. Heat up some olive oil in a pan. Toss in all the onion strips or rings with seasonings like salt and pepper, hot red pepper flakes, dried thyme, and a bay leaf or two.

Keep the heat low and let the onions melt down in the pan, stirring them as often as you want. You can also add a teaspoon of sugar or some white wine to give them extra sweetness and encourage them cook down faster. Covering the pan for part of the cooking time helps too.

After an hour, you have oignons fondants — really tender onions — and all you need is a pizza crust to spread them over. Walt makes that. Or even a pie crust. Some black olives, pitted or not, make it look nice.

To go with such a pizza, a salad is called for. This one is just some lettuce and two or three palm hearts — cœurs de palmier — which we buy in cans here in France. They are tender too and have a mild but interesting flavor. The dressing is a standard vinaigrette: vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and oil (olive or other, as you like).